Obituary Prof. Dr. Max Birnstiel

Obituary for Max Birnstiel by Walter Schaffner, published in "Zeitschrift der Zürcher Naturforschenden Gesellschaft", 1/2015 (translated by George Hausmann)

Max Birnstiel studied physical chemistry and biology at the ETH in Zurich. During the subsequent postdoctoral period at the California Institute of Technology, he met his future wife the microbiologist Margaret Chipchase; she was a mainstay of his life - an important partner and support. The next step for the two was Edinburgh, where Max Birnstiel rapidly rose from postdoc to lecturer to professor. His first big achievement was the isolation of ribosomal RNA genes from Xenopus laevis by centrifugation in a cesium chloride gradient - the first vertebrate genes to be isolated! The zoologist Ernst Hadorn, who in 1967 had recruited Charles Weissmann to the new Institute of Molecular Biology in the University of Zurich, also brought Birnstiel to Zurich. The result was the unusual constellation of two institutes, Molecular Biology I (Weissmann) and, from 1972, Molecular Biology II (Birnstiel). In the following years fundamental discoveries were made in both institutions resulting in a rich harvest of publications in prestigious scientific journals; as a consequence Zurich became one of the leading centers of molecular biology in Europe. One further milestone achieved by Max Birnstiel was the isolation of the histone genes from sea urchins. Birnstiel quickly realized that the emerging technique of DNA cloning was superior to his gradient centrifugation and was one of the first to switch to this technology; this enabled him and his team to remain at the forefront of genetic research. An example is their discovery of the elements controlling the activation of histone genes and transfer RNA genes. After 14 successful years in Zurich Max Birnstiel’s zest for new ventures was unabated. Consequently he took up the challenge to establish a new institute for basic biomedical research in Vienna, the Institute of Molecular Pathology. The institute, which was funded by the pharmaceutical industry, opened in 1988. On Birnstiel’s initiative, the university-associated Vienna Biocenter was installed next door. This complex, enriched with biotech companies, rapidly became the leading research center in Austria. Key to Max Birnstiel’s success was that his managerial style was not domineering, rather it reflected his personality which was characterized by decisiveness and clarity. Away from science Max Birnstiel was also a connoisseur of haute cuisine and Bordeaux wines. His extraordinary achievements were recognized by numerous research awards, amongst them honorary doctorates from the Universities of Fribourg, Lund, Guelph, Edinburgh and Moscow. He was a member of many research societies and academies, including the National Academy of Sciences of the USA, the American Chemical Society and the German Academy of Natural Sciences Leopoldina (see also the IMLS hall of fame). In 2002, he returned with his wife to Switzerland and devoted more of his time to his hobbies: traveling, gardening, playing the flute, and reading. Max Birnstiel will be remembered as a great scientist and as a dedicated mentor for all (myself included) who were fortunate enough to work with him over the years.