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Irwin Sizer, former dean, dies at age 90

Professor Irwin Sizer in 1964, with one of the models he used to describe his biological research.
Professor Irwin Sizer in 1964, with one of the models he used to describe his biological research.

Retired Professor Irwin W. Sizer, a pioneer in molecular biology and champion of the recruitment of women and minority students, died on September 11 at his home in Carlton Willard Village, Bedford, MA. He was 90 years old.

Professor Sizer served as the dean of the Graduate School from 1967-76, after which he returned to the Department of Biology as professor emeritus and instructor. He was the head of that department from 1957-67. He played a key role in the development of Whitaker College and served as president of the Whitaker Health Science Fund from 1974-90.

As a dean, he was instrumental in the development of many graduate programs, including the joint PhD in oceanography at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute, the Harvard-MIT Health Sciences and Technology program and the introduction of interdisciplinary master's degrees.

As the department head, he played a major role in the evolution of the biology curriculum from a classical program to a modern molecular biology program, and in the recruitment of faculty for programs and reserarch in this area. During his tenure, Professors Vernon M. Ingram, Alexander Rich, Boris Magasanik and Maurice S. Fox, as well as the late Salvador Luria, a 1969 Nobel laureate, joined the department. The department has produced four other Nobelists: professors Har Gobind Khorana (1968), David Baltimore (1975), Susumu Tonegawa (1987) and Phillip A. Sharp (1993).

Professor Sizer, a 1931 graduate of Brown University, joined the MIT faculty as a $1,500-a-year instructor in 1935 after receiving the PhD from Rutgers University. He became an assistant professor in 1939, associate professor in 1942 and acting head of the Department of Biology in 1955. He was promoted to professor in 1956 and named head of the department a year later.

During his 60 years at MIT, he took public stands on scientific and social issues.

Speaking in 1966 at an MIT-sponsored conference, Professor Sizer urged society to manage world population, the environment, chemical and nuclear weapons, starvation, disease and new-found information about heredity. "What man can do may be determined not only by science, medicine and engineering, but by man himself and his ability to control his own destiny," he said.

In 1968, he invited the military to join him in his battle to protect graduate students from the draft. He warned them that they would not want to lead "the oldest, smartest and least-disciplined army in the world."

Professor Sizer's research concentrated on the use of enzyme inhibitors as antibiotics and in chemotherapy. He also studied enzymes involved in blood clotting. His other areas of interest included spectroscopy, the biochemistry of collagen and the use of catgut for surgical sutures.

In 1996, at the time of his retirement from the Institute, Professor Sizer and his late wife, Helen, established a career development professorship in biology. The current holder of the Irwin and Helen Sizer Department of Biology Career Development Professorship is Assistant Professor David Bartel.

The Irwin Sizer Award for the Most Significant Improvement to MIT Education, established in 1982, is presented to any member or group in the Institute community to honor significant innovations and improvements to MIT education. The winner receives the award at the annual Awards Convocation in May.

Professor Sizer was a longtime consultant to the National Institutes of Health, chairing the Physiology Training Committee in 1965. He was a trustee of both the Boston Museum of Science and the Boston Biomedical Research Institute and was a consultant on Latin American educational problems for the Ford Foundation for 10 years. He served on the Advisory Committee on Graduate Education of the Board of Higher Education of Massachusetts, and was a trustee member of the Board of Governors of Rutgers and a member of the board of Lesley College.

Professor Sizer was a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and the American Institute of Chemists, and a member of the American Physiology Society, the Society of Biological Chemists, the American Chemical Society and the American Society of Zoologists. He was an honorary member of the MIT Association of Alumni and Alumnae and was awarded an honorary Doctor of Science degree by Brown University.

Professor Sizer was married for 62 years to the former Helen Whitcomb, whom he met in a physiology class at Brown in 1930. "We didn't pay much attention to each other until the end of the year when I said I couldn't understand 'surface tension,'" Helen recalled at their 50th anniversary celebration in McCormick Hall in 1985. "Irwin offered me his laboratory notes and I was touched by the way he was smiling at me."

Professor Sizer, a native of Bridgewater, MA, and a longtime resident of Lexington, is survived by his daughter, Meredith Ann Twomey of Newton, MA; two brothers, Alvin of Tucson, AR, and Eldon of Swarthmore, PA; and four grandchildren. Mrs. Sizer died in 1997.

A memorial service will be held at Carlton Willard Village at 4pm on Sunday, Oct. 15. An event honoring Dr. Sizer will be scheduled at MIT.

A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on October 4, 2000.

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