Obituary: Gary K. Ackers

Obituary

Gary K. Ackers

(1939-2011)

 
Gary Keith Ackers, professor and researcher in molecular biophysics, died on May 20, 2011, at age 71 from early-onset Alzheimer’s disease. His research focused on the thermodynamics of macromolecular assemblies, in particular protein-DNA systems and human hemoglobin. He developed an innovative approach to the analysis of cooperative oxygen binding by hemoglobin using linkage thermodynamics, applying lessons learned from DNA binding studies using footprint titration methods. This approach required the development of laboratory techniques such as large-zone analytical gel chromatography, low-temperature isoelectric focusing, and methods for modifying and hybridizing human hemoglobin tetramers.
 
Ackers’ laboratory was known for careful, high-precision measurements. Even as the field of molecular biophysics became more and more reliant on structural rather than functional information, Ackers remained a fervent advocate of the application of thermodynamics to the study of macromolecular systems. His work revealed that hemoglobin operates according to specific codes built into each binding site, rather than into the molecule as a whole.
 
Gary was drawn to science at a young age, winning the San Francisco Bay Area Science Fair at age 15. He published his first five scientific papers while majoring in chemistry and mathematics at Harding College. He earned his doctorate in physiological chemistry with Tom Thompson at Johns Hopkins University, and then joined the faculty at the University of Virginia, becoming full professor at age 33. He returned to Johns Hopkins University in 1977 as Professor of Biology and the McCollum-Pratt Institute. While at Hopkins, he also served as Professor of Biophysics and Director of the Institute for Biophysical Research on Macromolecular Assemblies, which he founded through the National Science Foundation. He relocated to Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis, Missouri, in 1989 as the Raymond H. Wittcoff Professor and Head of the Biochemistry department. There, he established the Molecular Biophysics program and expanded the new Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Biophysics. He was a member of the American Society of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology, the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the American Chemical Society, and a Fellow of the Biophysical Society. He was a co-founder of the Gibbs Conference on Biothermodynamics. 
 
Gary was known for his sense of humor and propensity for science puns. He was deeply gratified by the success of the graduate and postdoctoral students who trained in his laboratory. He is survived by his wife, Jo M. Holt, who was friend, confidante, and close collaborator in the last decade of his research career, and by her son, James Hazzard. He is also survived by his first wife, Naomi Caldwell, and their children: Lisa Ackers; Sandra Ackers and her husband Bryan Session; and Keith Ackers, his wife Mimi and their children, Anna and Owen
 
In the course of his career, Gary gave lectures on thermodynamics across the United States, Europe, the former Soviet Union, and China. A
fund for trainees in biophysics at Johns Hopkins University has been established in his name, the Gary K. Ackers Travel Fellowship Fund, for
which donors are asked to contact Richard Hastings (hastings@jhu.edu).
 
Jo M. Holt, Washington University School of Medicine