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John M. Buchanan, retired professor and noted biochemist, 89

John M. Buchanan
John M. Buchanan

John M. "Jack" Buchanan, Wilson Professor emeritus of Biology, died June 25 in Lexington, Mass. He was 89.

Buchanan devoted his life and dedicated service to MIT and to his profession. He joined the MIT faculty in 1953 as professor of biology and as director of the newly established Division of Biochemistry. He soon recruited a core group of young and senior faculty to the department, including Gene Brown, Vernon Ingram, Salvador Luria, Paul Schimmel, Phil Robbins and Lisa Steiner. Growing from this nucleus, the Biology Department and the Biochemistry Division soon gained a reputation for being among the outstanding programs in the country.

Buchanan helped attract other leading scientists to MIT, including Cyrus Levinthal, Maurice Fox and Alexander Rich--key appointments that helped boost the biology department's international reputation.

In his autobiography, the late MIT President James Killian observed that bringing Buchanan to MIT was among the most important recruitments of his tenure.

Buchanan completed his undergraduate degree in chemistry at DePauw University in 1938 and earned a master's in biological chemistry at the University of Michigan in 1939. He moved to Harvard Medical School for his Ph.D. work under A. Baird Hastings, where his research contributed to understanding the gluconeogenic pathway from lactic acid. This was one of the pioneering studies on biosynthetic pathways using isotopically labeled precursors, in this case, the extremely short half-life form of carbon, 11C.

After completing his Ph.D. in 1943, he joined the faculty in physiological chemistry at the University of Pennsylvania Medical School, rising to full professor by the time he left for MIT in 1953. Buchanan was awarded a Medical Research Council Fellowship between 1946 and 1948, which he used to work with Hugo Theorell at the Nobel Institute in Stockholm. This was a singularly successful period in Buchanan's career, in which he gained expertise in protein and enzyme chemistry. He also met Elsa Nilsson, who would in due time become Elsa Buchanan, his wife and inseparable companion of 58 years.

Buchanan was honored in 1966 as the first John and Dorothy Wilson Professor at MIT, a chair now held by Dianne Newman of the biology department. In recognition of his career and service, MIT has endowed an annual John M. Buchanan Lectureship and a John M. Buchanan Medal with the inscription, "Discovery, Education, Inspiration, Friendship and Modesty."

Buchanan is survived by his wife, Elsa, sons Steve and Peter, daughters Claire and Lisa as well as many grandchildren.

A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on September 19, 2007 (download PDF).

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