Biologist and artist, Jane Overton, 1919-2007

June 11, 2007

A leading researcher on the fine structure of cell surfaces, the factors that regulate how cells connect with each other as they form into tissues and the application of electron microscopy to the study of cellular connections, Jane H. Overton, PhD, professor emerita in the Department of Molecular Genetics and Cell Biology at the University of Chicago, died at her Montgomery Place residence in the Hyde Park neighborhood of Chicago, on Sunday, June 3, from complications after a long battle with cancer. She was 88.

Overton studied the elaborate structures on the surfaces of cells in order to understand how single cells established and maintained connections with their partners as they matured to form different types of tissues in the developing embryo. Only by understanding the behavior of normal cells, she maintained, would scientists learn how to prevent abnormal behaviors, such as cancer.

"Jane ran a small lab without a lot of research funding but she was steadily productive throughout her career," said colleague Janice Spofford, PhD, professor emerita of ecology and evolution at the University. "She was among the first to use the electron microscope for this purpose and wrote a good deal about its use as a tool."

"She took the most beautiful pictures," said Manfred Ruddat, PhD, associate professor of ecology and evolution at Chicago, who worked with her on several studies. "In those days the electron microscope was very precious, but she had gorgeous images of green algae, drosophila bristles, chick embryos, all the model organisms at the time. She was sort of a model person herself," he added, "someone you could rely on, a true biologist who knew the morphology of all sorts of animals and plants. She had an unusually a broad understanding of biology."

"Quiet, steady, a good listener," recalled Lorna Straus, PhD, professor emerita or organismal biology and anatomy at the University of Chicago. "She taught embryology in the College. She taught it well and she welcomed undergraduates into her lab. As a colleague, I remember her listening carefully at faculty meetings and then making thoughtful and useful contributions to discussions about the curriculum."

The granddaughter of William Rainey Harper, the first president of the University of Chicago, Jane Harper was born in Chicago on January 17, 1919, and grew up in Hyde Park. She received her AB degree from Bryn Mawr College in 1941 and married George Overton, a prominent Chicago lawyer and political activist, in 1941. Along with having three children, she managed to complete her PhD.

She then joined the faculty at the University of Chicago as a research assistant in zoology and a teacher in the College. She rose steadily through the ranks to become a professor of biology in 1972. In 1985 she became a professor in the newly created Department of Molecular Genetics and Cell Biology. She continued to teach and perform research in her small lab in the University's Whitman Laboratories and later in the Erman Biology Center until she retired in 1989.

A prolific author, Overton published more than 110 papers in research journals, primarily on embryology, cell morphology and intercellular junctions. She lectured extensively on her research around the country. She served as associate editor for the Journal of Morphology and as treasurer for the American Society for Cell Biology. In 1976, her peers elected her as a Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

Despite her professional distinctions, and her family connections, "she always had an open door for students and colleagues," Ruddat said. "If you needed something, she would never say no. She would listen carefully and make solid suggestions that were actually helpful--someone you really wanted on your team."

"And she would never let on about her family connections," he recalled, "her ties to President Harper. When one of us brought it up she would cut us off. 'I'm Mrs. Overton,’ she would say, 'Jane Overton.'"

In Overton's early career, biologists often relied on careful drawings of microscopic structures to illustrate and explain their discoveries. Later in life, Overton reapplied her illustrative talents to a second career as an artist. In her late 60s, she studied drawing and painting at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, followed by stints in the studios of Chicago artists Alain Gavin and Bonnie Hartenstein.

In the 1990s, her art work--which combined colors from nature with a grid-like framework of floating horizontal and vertical lines--was exhibited at several galleries in Chicago and New York and was featured in two solo shows at the Artemesia gallery in Chicago.

After 63 years of marriage, her husband died in 2004. Overton is survived by three children--her eldest son Samuel Harper Overton, her twins Peter Darlington Overton and Ann Vincent Overton--and two grandchildren.

A memorial service will be held June 16 at the Hyde Park Art Center, 5020 S. Cornell Ave., Chicago. In lieu of flowers, donations should be sent to the Department of Molecular Genetics and Cell Biology at the University of Chicago, care of the Medical & Biological Sciences Alumni Association, 1170 East 58th Street, Chicago, IL 60637.

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