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Maurice Fox, professor emeritus of biology, dies at 95

A caring mentor and staunch political activist, Fox cared deeply about his students, the department, and the scientific enterprise.
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Maurice Fox, professor emeritus of biology (1924-2020)
Maurice Fox, professor emeritus of biology (1924-2020)
Photo: Mandana Sassanfar

Maurice Sanford Fox, professor emeritus of biology and former head of the Department of Biology, passed away on Jan. 26 at the age of 95.

Fox was instrumental in creating and revising several courses within the biology major, and served as department head from 1985 to 1989. His research focused on bacterial genetics, and he pioneered investigations into bacterial transformation.

“Maury was a force in the department for many years,” says current department head Alan Grossman, the Praecis Professor of Biology. “He was very involved in the graduate program, and served as a mentor and friend to many of us. He cared deeply about the department, the scientific enterprise, and bioethics.”

Fox was born in the Bronx, New York, in 1924 to a family of poor Jewish immigrants; his father had fled Russia to avoid being conscripted into the tsar’s army. Growing up, Fox had little interest in science, and considered himself small for his age and “not very noticeable.” However, one teacher took an interest in him, and encouraged him to apply to Stuyvesant High School, which specialized in math and science. It took him an hour to make the commute each day, but he relished his biology and chemistry courses, where he got to study flies and flatworms and learn how to blow glass.

Fox graduated from high school at age 16 and enrolled in Queens College with the intent of majoring in chemistry. After a year and a half, he left to enlist in the U.S. Army Air Force and attend their meteorology program, eventually becoming a full-time meteorologist and traveling all over the American South to forecast weather for the military. At the time, he aspired to become a doctor, but didn’t have enough money for medical school. Instead, at age 22, he returned to Queens College to continue taking chemistry courses.

He went on to receive his PhD in chemistry from the University of Chicago, where he studied under Willard Libby and specialized in nuclear chemistry. Realizing he had no interest in nuclear weapons, Fox began scanning the bulletin boards at the University of Chicago for other opportunities post-graduation, and came across Leo Szilard’s lab. Szilard had discovered a chemical reaction, known as the “Szilard-Chalmers reaction,” which Fox had just used to complete his thesis in physical chemistry. Fox joined the lab and became fascinated with Szilard’s continuous-flow device, called a chemostat, used for growing hundreds of generations of bacteria under constant conditions. To Fox, the device was a new way to think about kinetics, which “treated living things like chemicals.”

Fox considered Szilard to be his most influential mentor, inspiring him both scientifically and personally. Szilard encouraged Fox to take biology classes, and Fox became increasingly enthralled by bacterial genetics — a subject he later taught in classes of his own.

Several years later, the two joined forces to establish the Council for a Livable World. Their plan was to create an organization that would raise money for senatorial candidates who would be “sensible” about nuclear weapons and avoid nuclear catastrophe. Fox felt this conviction to uphold the social and political responsibilities of being a researcher throughout his entire life. He fought to reduce the risks of radiation, biological warfare, and gene editing, and later went on to chair MIT’s Radiation Protection Committee and become a member of UNESCO’s International Bioethics Committee.

At the time that Fox and Szilard were building the Council for a Livable World, Fox was completing his postdoc with biochemist Rollin Hotchkiss at Rockefeller Institute for Medical Research — the country’s first biomedical institute — which later became Rockefeller University. After his postdoc, he rose through the ranks to become an associate professor before being recruited to MIT in 1962.

As a bacterial geneticist, Fox used bacterial transformation as an experimental model for genetic analysis to gain insights into mechanisms of genetic modification. He later extended his investigations to transduction and conjugation. Fox helped lay the foundation of our modern understanding of DNA mutation, recombination, and mismatch repair — efforts which directly and indirectly influenced key advancements like the search for RNA viruses and the discovery of the SOS response. He also had a keen interest in evaluating the effectiveness of medical procedures, including diagnosis and treatment of breast cancer. He was a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, the National Academy of Sciences, and the National Academy of Medicine, among other prominent professional organizations.

Fox remained active in the Department of Biology for 34 years, retiring in 1996. During that time, he taught several Course 7 subjects and mentored graduate and undergraduate students, as well as postdocs.

Fox was among the founding generation of molecular biologists who migrated from the physical sciences, says David Botstein, one of Fox’s earliest trainees at MIT. He remembers Fox as both an intellectual mentor and a life coach. Fox befriended many and his house was always full of visitors, with whom he shared his love for science, culture, art, and politics. “Maury introduced me to the quantitative study of microorganisms and the importance of DNA mutation and recombination — which I had expected — but also to the rigorous and persistent skepticism that led me to constantly search for alternatives to the current thinking,” Botstein says. “In this way, Maury introduced me to an approach to science and learning that shaped my entire career.”

Michael Lichten PhD ’82 also credits Fox with teaching him how to think about science. “Maury taught as much by example as by direction, and he transmitted a deep and profound commitment to teaching that guides many of his students to this day,” he says.

"Maury was a colleague, a mentor, and, most importantly, a friend,” recalls H. Robert Horvitz, Nobel laureate and one of Fox’s former undergraduate students. “Maury truly helped shaped my life, from my undergraduate days as a student in his genetics class to many more recent days, when he always offered both warmth and wisdom.”

“This is a man who made an astonishing difference in an astonishing number of lives,” adds Evelyn Fox Keller, Fox’s sister and professor emerita of history and philosophy of science at MIT. “He made a difference to the world. His life was devoted to making the world a better place for people — and he did.”

Fox is survived by his three sons, Jonathan, Gregory, and Michael, and his sisters Evelyn and Frances, who is a professor emerita of political science at the Graduate Center, City University of New York. Fox was predeceased by his wife of more than 50 years, Sally. The Department of Biology will hold a memorial celebration of Fox’s life in the spring. 

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