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Gunther Stent


Gunther S. Stent

Professor of Neurobiology, Emeritus

UC Berkeley

1924 – 2008

Gunther S. Stent, pioneer molecular biologist and neurobiologist, died in Haverford, Pennsylvania, on June 12, 2008, at the age of 84. He resided in Berkeley and was an active member of the University of California, Berkeley, community from 1952 through 2007, when failing health prompted his move to Pennsylvania.

Through his close intellectual, scientific and personal interactions with the principals of early molecular biology, his teaching, textbooks, critical essays and historical accounts, his philosophical lectures and writings, and his own experimental work, Stent helped establish the modern discipline of molecular biology. In the late 1960s, having concluded that the major “paradoxes” of this field had been resolved, he redirected his professional focus to questions in neurobiology, organismal development, and philosophy of mind. His numerous honors include election to the American Philosophical Society, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and the National Academy of Sciences.

Born Günter Siegmund Stensch on March 24, 1924, in Berlin, he was the youngest of three children. When the Nazis banned Jews from the public school system in 1935, he was enrolled in a Jewish school (Private Waldschule Kaliski); remarkably, his class produced three future UC Berkeley professors. As the rising tide of anti-Semitism forced his family to flee, Gunther and his stepmother were the last of the family to go, making a narrow escape on foot through a snow-covered forest on New Year’s Eve 1938, after a harrowing encounter with German border guards. Upon emigration the family name was changed to Stent, and Gunther anglicized his given name at the same time.

While his father and brother remained in England, Gunther came alone to America in March 1940 to live in Chicago with his sister Claire and her husband. Graduating from Hyde Park School in 1942 after only two years of study, Gunther then attended the University of Illinois, Champaign-Urbana, on a scholarship, supplemented by hard work as a soda jerk/short-order cook at the local drugstore. His fascination with railroads and steam engines led to an honors degree in physical chemistry. A second major in philosophy reflected his passionate, lifelong interest in that field. Gunther graduated in December 1944 after only 29 months as an undergraduate and became an American citizen in 1945.

Encouraged by his undergraduate thesis mentor, Frederick Wall, Gunther enrolled in graduate school at the University of Illinois and became involved in the synthetic rubber research program conducted for the War Production Board. The task was to find ways to correct for the elastic defects in synthetic rubber caused by the heterogeneity in the chain length of the molecules. He earned a Ph.D. in physical chemistry in 1948 at the age of 24.

Gunther interrupted his graduate study to serve eight months (1946-1947) in the Interallied Field Information Agency Technical (FIAT), nominally assessing scientific and technical innovations in German industry. Gunther found this effort useless, but it did generate free time and the credentials to travel in postwar Germany. During this time he returned to Berlin, revisited his childhood sites, skied and lived out his romantic teenage aspirations. Many of these activities are related in his autobiography, Nazis, Women, and Molecular Biology (1998), which elegantly chronicles the period of his life prior to coming to UC Berkeley.

Like several other pioneers of molecular biology, Gunther was influenced to take up biology by a book he would subsequently call “the Uncle Tom’s Cabin of the revolution in biology,” Erwin Schrödinger's What is Life? (1944). Schrödinger, one of the founders of quantum mechanics, speculated that new physical laws might be discovered in the study of biology and wrote glowingly of the work of a German physicist, Max Delbrück, who had suggested that the genetic material might be some kind of large molecular crystal. Pleasantly surprised to learn Delbrück had survived the war and was a faculty member at the California Institute of Technology, Gunther succeeded in joining his lab as a postdoctoral fellow.

Gunther was initiated into the laboratory by taking the summer bacteriophage course at Cold Spring Harbor, New York, in 1948. Delbrück had founded the course with Salvador Luria in 1945 as a means to promote a community of scholars who would decipher how this virus managed to replicate itself inside bacteria. When Gunther took it, the course instructors included Luria and Alfred Hershey and two assistants, Renato Dulbecco and James Watson. Thus, Gunther became an early disciple of the “Phage Group”, which over the next two decades would be responsible for much of what we know about DNA. Following his time with Delbrück, Gunther did a second postdoc in Copenhagen and then, in 1952, came to UC Berkeley to found his own research group in Wendell Stanley’s Virus Laboratory. Gunther’s laboratory made important contributions to understanding the nature of DNA transcription into messenger RNA (mRNA) and mRNA translation into protein. They found that mRNA transcription and translation occur in the same direction and at the same rate. This tight coupling of transcription and translation, at least in bacteria, turns out to be an important aspect of gene regulation.

Gunther was a popular teacher with the UC Berkeley undergraduates in the days before Powerpoint. Modest about his skills at the chalkboard, he illustrated his lectures with drawings made on butcher paper with thick marking pens, edited by pasting fresh bits of paper over items he needed to change, and hung before the class with masking tape. His lectures and scientific papers were written out longhand on Big Chief tablets, skipping every other line to allow for the heavy editing that invariably followed. These notes later gave rise to many of the books he published, including Molecular Biology of Bacterial Viruses (1963), which is recalled with admiration by many students of the 1960s and ‘70s. The lively narrative style of this book became a model for modern scientific textbooks. This book was later expanded to become Molecular Genetics (1971), with a second edition in 1978 coauthored with Berkeley Professor Richard Calendar.

In the 1960s, Gunther, influenced no doubt in part by his beloved Delbrück, came to believe the phage group had answered the major questions that had been posed at its founding. During the period in which the Berkeley campus was shut down by student protests, Gunther began a lecture series that led ultimately to the publication of The Coming of the Golden Age (1969), in which he put forth the idea that progress itself can come to an end, and that for molecular biology, the end was near.

Gunther decided that the next big thing was neuroscience, so he took a sabbatical at Harvard University to study neurobiology and was introduced to the leech as a neurobiological preparation. Upon returning to Berkeley, Gunther became in effect his own Delbrück, founding a school of neurobiologists who used the leech to elucidate the neural basis of behavior by analyzing the properties and interconnections of individual neurons. An early experimental and theoretical triumph of this work was their demonstration of the key role played by recurrent cyclic inhibition in pattern generation by neural networks. During this period, Gunther also published what was to become of one of his most cited and influential papers, proposing a physiological basis for Hebb's postulate of synaptic plasticity during learning. This work generated excitement and discussion among neurobiologists in much the same way that Schrödinger's book had stimulated molecular biologists-to-be three decades earlier. Also during this period, he made a major contribution to the history and philosophy of science by articulating the concept of “prematurity.” Gunther called a scientific idea or discovery “premature” if its implications could not be easily connected to the framework of generally accepted knowledge. The history of science is replete with such ideas and discoveries.

Gunther served, reluctantly but with distinction, as chairman of the Department of Molecular Biology and then as the founding chairman of the present Department of Molecular and Cell Biology, a department that he spearheaded by bringing together faculty from a number of disparate areas unified by a common interest in the cellular and molecular study of living organisms. During this period his research interests shifted again, to developmental biology. He thus founded a new group, which established the leech as an organism for studies in evolutionary development and demonstrated the utility of microinjected cell lineage tracers for the analysis of complex embryos.

Following his retirement as department chair and the winding down of his laboratory research with the leech, he devoted more of his time to questions that had been central to him for many years, namely the application of the conceptual methods of neuroscience to addressing deep questions of the human mind: the nature of mental experience, free will, and consciousness. He explored these questions in part by teaching a small seminar to freshman undergraduate students each semester every year until failing health forced him to stop in 2007. His exploration of the notion of free will in this series of seminars resulted in what was to be his last book, Paradoxes of Free Will (2003), a book that received a special award from the American Philosophical Society.

Gunther met his first wife, Inga Heidia Löftsdottir, when he was a postdoc in Copenhagen. They married in 1951, and she died in 1993. For many years, Inga helped cultivate the vibrant social life centered in their Berkeley home. Their son, Stefan Stent, lives in Washington, D.C. Gunther is also survived by his second wife, Mary “Molly” Burgwin Ulam, to whom he was married in 2003, and two stepsons Alexander Ulam and Joseph Ulam. Long before e-mail, Gunther was a passionate correspondent and greatly valued written communication. His extensive correspondence and writings are archived in The Bancroft Library at UC Berkeley.

At UC Berkeley, life with Gunther revolved around passionate discussions of experimental results and theoretical models, fine points of grammar, the paradoxes underlying just about anything worth considering, whether neuroscience would ever be successful in elucidating the deep questions related to the nature of mental experience and consciousness, and lunches at favorite local restaurants, all punctuated by occasional trips across the Bay Bridge in his white 1963 Cadillac convertible with red leather upholstery, the top down, the road clear, and the sun shining. As Gunther would have said, in his best Chicago gangsterese, “Ya shoulda been there.”

David Weisblat
Richard Calendar
David Presti