The Washington Post Sunday - - METRO - BY HAR­RI­SON SMITH har­ri­son.smith@wash­

Stan­ley Falkow stud­ied how bac­te­ria cause dis­ease and how they re­sist an­tibi­otics.

Stan­ley Falkow, a mi­cro­bi­ol­o­gist who un­cov­ered the molec­u­lar un­der­pin­nings of in­fec­tious dis­eases, sounded the alarm for an­tibi­otic-re­sis­tant bac­te­ria and cham­pi­oned the ben­e­fits of micro­organ­isms in the gut and even in stool, died May 5 at his home in Por­tola Val­ley, Calif. He was 84.

The cause was com­pli­ca­tions of myelodys­plas­tic syn­drome, a bone mar­row dis­or­der, said his wife, Lucy Tomp­kins.

Dr. Falkow (pro­nounced falkoh) was a pro­fes­sor emer­i­tus of mi­cro­bi­ol­ogy and im­munol­ogy at the Stan­ford Univer­sity School of Medicine. He had stud­ied mi­crobes since he was 11, when he trained a mi­cro­scope on a cup of spoiled milk, and over­came de­bil­i­tat­ing so­cial anx­i­ety to be­come one of the most ac­claimed re­searchers in his field and a men­tor to more than 100 stu­dents.

In 2008, he was hon­ored with the Lasker-Kosh­land Spe­cial Achieve­ment Award in Med­i­cal Science, part of a group of hon­ors de­scribed as Amer­ica’s No­bel Prizes. The award ci­ta­tion called him “one of the great mi­crobe hunters of all time,” and the “founder of molec­u­lar mi­cro­bial patho­gen­e­sis,” the study of how pathogens cause dis­ease.

Though he fo­cused on their re­la­tion to hu­man illness, Dr. Falkow main­tained a sev­en­decade love af­fair with mi­crobes of all kinds, and pro­claimed the won­ders of ev­ery­thing “from the mites that in­habit the eye­brows to the seething caul­dron of more than 600 species of bac­te­ria that in­habit the large bowel.”

His most in­flu­en­tial work cen­tered on plas­mids, cir­cu­lar DNA mol­e­cules in­side bac­te­rial cells. He showed they could trans­fer sig­nif­i­cant traits from one bac­te­ria to an­other — in­clud­ing re­sis­tance to an­tibi­otics or the abil­ity to cre­ate dis­ease-in­duc­ing tox­ins. Such gene trans­fers can en­able a once-be­nign bac­te­ria to be­come a threat to hu­man health.

While Dr. Falkow be­gan his re­search with a fo­cus on gon­or­rhea, he went on to iden­tify a strain of E. coli bac­te­ria re­spon­si­ble for de­bil­i­tat­ing di­ar­rhea, and helped un­ravel the molec­u­lar ori­gins of ail­ments in­clud­ing plague, whoop­ing cough, cholera, tu­ber­cu­lo­sis, ty­phoid fever, ul­cers, food poi­son­ing and uri­nary tract in­fec­tions.

“He was ba­si­cally try­ing to write the op­er­at­ing man­ual for dis­ease-caus­ing bac­te­ria,” said David A. Rel­man, a for­mer stu­dent of Dr. Falkow’s and a Stan­ford pro­fes­sor of mi­cro­bi­ol­ogy and im­munol­ogy. “You can think of it as the op­er­at­ing man­ual for a car. With that, you un­der­stand how it works and how to fix it. In this case you know how mi­crobes op­er­ate, and then how to at­tack them or block them.”

Dr. Falkow de­vised a set of cri­te­ria, known as molec­u­lar Koch’s pos­tu­lates, to de­ter­mine which of a pathogen’s genes con­trib­ute to a dis­ease. His re­search also laid the foun­da­tion for the ear­li­est ex­per­i­ments on re­com­bi­nant DNA, which com­bines genes from dif­fer­ent or­gan­isms. Do­ing so en­ables sci­en­tists to isolate genes and de­ter­mine their func­tion. Be­yond his lab­o­ra­tory re­search, Dr. Falkow served on sci­en­tific com­mit­tees and tes­ti­fied be­fore Congress on the dangers of rou­tine an­tibi­otic use in an­i­mal feed, which can en­gen­der re­sis­tance to the drugs. “He was pissed off to the end,” his wife said, that an­tibi­otics were still used in med­i­cally un­nec­es­sary sit­u­a­tions.

Fight­ing in­fec­tious dis­eases, Dr. Falkow said in his Lasker ac­cep­tance speech, was not merely “a mat­ter of them ver­sus us, or a war of at­tri­tion. Rather, based on cell num­ber, each of us is more mi­cro­bial than hu­man; we carry ten times more mi­cro­bial cells than cells of our own. The hu­man body is a bi­o­log­i­cal uni­verse of many species, most of which have never been grown in the lab­o­ra­tory and whose role in health and dis­ease is still a mys­tery.”

Stan­ley Falkow was born in Al­bany, N.Y., on Jan. 24, 1934. He grew up in a Yid­dish-speak­ing house­hold where his fa­ther was a shoe sales­man who em­i­grated from Kiev, Ukraine. His mother, the daugh­ter of Jewish im­mi­grants from Poland, rented sev­eral of their bed­rooms and later opened a corset shop.

Dr. Falkow be­came in­ter­ested in science soon af­ter the fam­ily moved to New­port, R.I., in 1943, where he dis­cov­ered Paul de Kruif’s book “Mi­crobe Hunters” at the pub­lic li­brary. He had poor grades un­til his se­nior year of high school, how­ever, lead­ing an ad­viser to sug­gest he con­sider the mil­i­tary rather than col­lege.

He in­stead en­rolled at the Univer­sity of Maine, which had a bac­te­ri­ol­ogy de­part­ment. Dur­ing his sum­mers he worked at the hospi­tal in New­port, de­vel­op­ing slides and as­sist­ing in the oc­ca­sional au­topsy.

Af­ter grad­u­at­ing in 1955, he stud­ied at the Univer­sity of Michi­gan be­fore drop­ping out be­cause of re­cur­ring panic at­tacks. He even­tu­ally re­ceived his doc­tor­ate in bi­ol­ogy at Brown Univer­sity in 1961, and worked at the Wal­ter Reed Army In­sti­tute of Re­search.

For years, he wrote, he lived “both sci­en­tif­i­cally and per­son­ally in a kind of co­coon, al­ways half afraid and ready at a mo­ment’s no­tice to run” be­cause of his anx­i­ety at­tacks. He said he was more com­fort­able at his mi­cro­scope than around peo­ple, and tried to imag­ine that he him­self was a mi­crobe in an ef­fort to un­der­stand how they dealt with their hu­man hosts.

Dr. Falkow said his anx­i­ety di­min­ished some­what af­ter a col­league taught him to fly fish, and af­ter he forced him­self to at­tend and speak at aca­demic con­fer­ences.

His marriage to Rhoda Ostroff ended in di­vorce, and in 1983 he mar­ried Tomp­kins, a for­mer grad­u­ate stu­dent who is now an in­fec­tious-dis­eases spe­cial­ist at Stan­ford. In ad­di­tion to his wife, of Por­tola Val­ley, sur­vivors in­clude two daugh­ters from his ear­lier marriage; a step­son; a sis­ter; and four grand­chil­dren.

Dr. Falkow was on the fac­ulty of Ge­orge­town Univer­sity and the Univer­sity of Washington be­fore join­ing Stan­ford in 1981 as chair of mi­cro­bi­ol­ogy and im­munol­ogy. He re­tired af­ter be­ing di­ag­nosed with myelodys­plas­tic syn­drome in 2004, when doc­tors told him he had two years to live.

He re­ceived the Robert Koch Award for med­i­cal re­search in 2000 and the Na­tional Medal of Science in 2016.

His wife said that in the past sev­eral years, Dr. Falkow was con­tacted each Oc­to­ber by the Stan­ford com­mu­ni­ca­tions of­fice, ask­ing how it might reach him if he was awarded the No­bel Prize — an honor that many col­leagues be­lieved he was due to re­ceive.

It was not one he wanted. “He’d tell me, ‘I ab­so­lutely don’t want it. It’s not who I am; it would change who I am. I’d be trot­ted out all over the place. I do not want it,’ ” Tomp­kins said.

Four days be­fore Dr. Falkow died, he told his wife: “At least now I won’t get the No­bel Prize.”


Dr. Falkow, who was a pro­fes­sor of mi­cro­bi­ol­ogy and im­munol­ogy at Stan­ford Univer­sity, had stud­ied mi­crobes since he was 11.

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