Oliver Smithies, Nobel Prize winner from UW, dies While teaching at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, Oliver Smithies figured out a way for scientists to manipulate DNA to subtract or add genes from the genome of a mouse, revolutionizing genetics. When he was awarded the Nobel Prize in 2007, Smithies divided his Nobel prize money into thirds and gave it to the three universities so influential inhis life, including UW-Madison. Since then UW has used the money to bring leading scientists, including Nobel laureates, to speak to students at a symposium held each spring.
Smithies died Tuesday after a short illness in North Carolina where he was a professor of pathology and laboratory medicine at UNC-Chapel Hill. He was 91.
He was a genetics professor at UW-Madison from 1960 to 1988.
"He was a wonderful person. Very warm, and loved talking about anything to do with science," said Jerry Yin, a UW-Madison professor of genetics.
Yin was a graduate student when he met Smithies in 1980 and took his course on eukaryotic molecular genetics, fondly recalling the professor enthusiastically bounding into class carrying stacks of papers.
"He'd come running in, papers flying all over the place, clearly fresh off the Xerox machine. He'd throw them on the table and start talking about the papers," Yin said. "What I realized later, when he got the Nobel Prize, is that all these papers were parts of the solution to making knockout mice."
Smithies knew that human and mouse genomes have roughly the same number of genes, around 25,000. While trying to answer the question of what each gene does, Smithies figured out a way to precisely remove or add one gene from the mouse genome. That technology helps researchers create "knockout mice" — in effect designing mice for specific experiments — to isolate specific genes and advance the understanding of diseases, said Yin. In 1992, he created the first animal model of cystic fibrosis.
He and two other researchers, working independently, were awarded the 2007 Nobel in physiology or medicine for devising a technique that involved introducing a specific genetic change into a mouse by injecting altered stem cells into mice embryos. The animals born from the changed embryos could be bred to produce other mice with altered genes.
Smithies' work provided the foundation for gene therapy and revolutionized genetics.
When Yin heard his former professor had won the most prestigious prize in science, "my reaction was — they got this one right," said Yin. "Everybody knew it was going to be given for this technology. All of this research was done while Oliver was at UW."
Born in West Yorkshire, England, in 1925, Smithies credited his early fascination with science to an enthusiasm for telescopes and radios. After earning bachelor's degrees in physiology and chemistry, in 1951 he received his master's and doctorate in biochemistry at Oxford. Smithies did postdoctoral work at UW-Madison and then worked at the University of Toronto in Canada from 1952 to 1960.
Though he was a brilliant scientist, Smithies was not someone stuck up in an ivory tower — he was beloved as a teacher who enjoyed answering his students' questions in class and his office where toy mice lined the book shelves.
While attending the annual Lindau Nobel Laureate meeting in Germany in 2011, Smithies told Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reporter Grace Patuwo that the most enjoyable part of his job was interacting with students.
"I see the bright eyes of a person who's interested in science and if one can make the eye a little brighter, then that's even more satisfying," Smithies said in 2011.
The naturalized American citizen was a licensed private pilot who enjoyed gliding even though he was color-blind. He moved from UW-Madison to the UNC-Chapel Hill in 1988 with his wife Nobuyo Maeda, a pathology professor at UNC.
At the annual Oliver Smithies Symposium in Madison, young scientists meet world class researchers and Nobel Prize winners and hear them talk about their work; some speakers won Nobels after appearing at the Smithies symposium.
Memorial services in North Carolina are pending.