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Francis O. Schmitt, pioneer in molecular biology and neuroscience, dies at 91

CAMBRIDGE, Mass.-Massachusetts Institute of Technology Institute Professor Emeritus Francis O. Schmitt, internationally recognized as a pioneer in modern biological research and in the study of the brain, died Tuesday, October 3, at his home in Weston, Mass. The family said the cause of death was cardiac arrest. He was 91.

A service will be held at 2 p.m. Friday, Oct. 6, at the Congregational Church of Weston, 130 Newton St., Weston, Mass.

In 1941, Dr. Schmitt accepted a call from MIT President Karl Taylor Compton to head the Institute's Department of Biology at a time when a new kind of biology was emerging which focused on the molceular level. Dr. Schmitt was the first American researcher to apply X-ray diffraction and electron microscopy in this field, taking a special interest in the functioning of nerves.

After time out for war research on biomedical problems, particularly wound repair and the treatment of burns, the MIT biology staff, under Dr. Schmitt's direction, started an intensive program of teaching and research in molecular biology with the use of all available biophysical and biochemical techniques.

At the time of his death, Dr. Schmitt was an honorary trustee of Massachusetts General Hospital and McLean Hospital. He served actively on the Massachusetts General Hospital board and the General Hospital Corporation from 1947 to 1975, when he became an honorary member. He also was for many years an active member of the Massachusetts General Hospital's Committee on Research, and for several years was its chairman.

In his fundamental biological research, Dr. Schmitt utilized such tools and techniques of experimental physics as the x-ray, polarized light, spectroscopy and the electron microscope. He was one of the world's foremost authorities on the biological uses of the electron microscope, the instrument which made possible the direct photography and study of biomolecular structures.

Nerve, muscle, collagen, membranes, fibrils and other cellular structures were given special study. Many of the students of those days went on to become world leaders in molecular biology.

Dr. Schmitt's trailblazing studies included research on kidney function, conduction in heart muscle, tissue metabolism, chemistry and physiology of nerve, ultrasonic radiation, properties of surface films, biochemistry and electrophysiology of nerve, and analysis of molecular architecture of cells and tissues.

This productive program was complemented in the early 1950s by the establishment, under Dr. Schmitt's initiative, of a Division of Biochemistry to provide a parallel concentration in this area of modern analytical biology.

As professor of biology, Dr. Schmitt headed MIT's department from 1942 to 1955, when he was freed from his administrative duties so that he could devote all his attention to teaching and research. It was at this time that he was appointed Institute Professor, a distinguished academic post that recognizes outstanding achievement.

The current head of the Department of Biology, Nobel laureate Phillip A. Sharp, said: "Frank's leadership was critical in developing modern biochemistry and cellular biology at MIT and his spirit will be greatly missed."

Dr. Schmitt's standing as a significant figure in 20th century American science was enhanced, beginning in 1962, when he devoted much of his time to the Neurosciences Research Program (NRP) which he established with headquarters at the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. The program provided a focus, through conferences and publications, for research in neurosciences throughout the world.

It was a program in which mathematicians, physicists, chemists and engineers joined with experts in various biomedical sciences dealing with nerve, brain and behavior to investigate the physicochemical and biophysical bases of mental processes such as long-term memory, learning and consciousness.

An interdisciplinary, inter-university organization, the NRP was Dr. Schmitt's means for promoting research in what he considered the last frontier of science, the brain and brain function.

One scientific publication, which described Dr. Schmitt as a "scientific impresario," said the NRP represented Dr. Schmitt's attempt to get science's "wets" (chemists) and "drys" (physicists) together to work on the mystery of the brain.

Although largely supported by federal and private funds, the NRP had an academic affiliation with MIT.

Dr. Schmitt was chairman of the NRP from 1962 to 1974. In 1981 the NRP moved to Rockefeller University.

Dr. Schmitt remained at MIT to continue his research in molecular genetics and he continued to pursue his research interests following his official retirement from MIT in 1969.

As one interviewer reported, Dr. Schmitt was determined to turn "retirement" into opportunities to get "re-tired" with another set of tires, and to take off full tilt down other interesting avenues of research.

Before his official retirement from MIT he had been the leader of a lively research program there on the biophysics and biochemistry of nerves. The program included the isolation of the fibrous protein of nerve.

Most nerves are small and hard to get at chemically. The squid, a 10-armed marine animal related to the octopus, has very large nerve fibers from which pure axoplasm, the inner core of the nerve fiber, can be extracted with comparative ease. MIT nerve research concentrated on studies of this material and, during the summer, 40 or more squid were delivered to the Institute every day, kept alive in circulating sea water until they were ready for dissection. In 1957, Dr. Schmitt arranged to obtain axoplasm from the large nerve fibers of giant squid caught off the coast of Chile especially for MIT.

Born in St. Louis in 1903, Dr. Schmitt received his AB in 1924 and PhD in medical science in 1927 from Washington University. His father had wanted him to be a surgeon, but Dr. Schmitt ceased his medical studies to concentrate on the fields of chemistry and biology.

After receiving his PhD, Dr.. Schmitt did advanced study at the University of California, University College in London, and Kaiser Wilhelm Institute (now Max Planck Institute). In 1929 he was appointed to the faculty of Washington University and moved up in the ranks to become head of the department of zoology there by the time he came to MIT as a full professor.

His many awards and honors included the Albert Lasker Award of the American Public, Health Association, the Alsop Award of the American Leather Chemists Association and the T. Duckett Jones Award of the Helen Hay Whitney Foundation. He received honorary doctorate degrees from a number of universities, including Johns Hopkins; Washington University, St. Louis; University of Chicago; Valparaiso University; Michigan State University; New York Medical College; University of Pennsylvania; Wittenberg University; and Juniata College.

He was a member of many scientific and learned associations including the National Academy of Sciences, the American Philosophical Society and The Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences, from which he received an honorary MD degree, and former president of the Electron Microscope Society of America. He was a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

Dr. Schmitt had a longtime love of classical music, inspired by the artistry of his wife, Barbara, a former concert pianist who died in 1975.

He leaves a daughter, Marion Ellis of Cambridge; a son, Robert H. Schmitt of San Diego, Calif.; a brother, Otto H. Schmitt of Minneapolis, Minn.; six grandchildren and five great grandchildren.

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