One of the giants of City of Hope’s history soon will be honored at a scientific symposium on what would have been his 80th birthday — and his colleagues are already reminiscing about the man who still looms larger than life.
“Emergence of the Genetic Code, Genomes and Epigenomes,” scheduled for Feb. 1, will commemorate the late Susumu Ohno, Ph.D., D.V.M., one of the most creative scientists of the 20th century and a faculty member at City of Hope for nearly 50 years.
Ohno formulated two basic principles of modern biology: that one X chromosome is inactivated in female mammals and that evolution of complex organisms likely results from duplication of genes of simpler organisms. He was elected to the National Academy of Sciences and named a City of Hope distinguished scientist in 1981, and he won the Royal Danish Association Research Prize in 1998.
“Su Ohno was a rarity even in his day,” said Judy Singer-Sam, Ph.D., professor in the Division of Biology, which Ohno chaired. “He had old-world charm and original opinions about a wide range of topics. I remember lunch at a sushi restaurant where every dish reminded him of some evolutionary ‘factlet’ or idea.”
Art Riggs, Ph.D., professor of biology and director emeritus of Beckman Research Institute, was influenced by Ohno to join City of Hope in 1969. “What I liked best about Susumu was that he liked ideas and discussion, and he liked people,” Riggs said. “He was fun to argue with, especially after a little wine.”
For years, colleagues gathered at Ohno’s office for Friday afternoon winetastings and conversation. Rodney Williamson, Ph.D., director of the Drosophila facility, frequently attended, along with late City of Hope geneticist William Kaplan, Ph.D. Williamson recalled Kaplan saying that it gradually became apparent that Ohno knew just about everything: “He could talk about horses, genetics, baseball and music, and his knowledge of history was extensive.”
Steve Novak, Ph.D., director of professional education, conducted an oral history interview with Ohno before his death in 2000. Novak noted that many colleagues found Ohno’s talks difficult to follow. “But even if they didn’t understand what he was saying, they felt they were in presence of a great man,” Novak said. “He asked really big questions.”
Ohno also found answers. Eugene Roberts, Ph.D., director emeritus of neurobiochemistry, recalled when Ohno showed him two seemingly identical laboratory mice that differed only in one gene. “Ohno said, ‘I’m going to show you that I can distinguish these two lines,’ and the first thing I notice is that he’s smelling them,” Robert said. “He could identify them accurately 100 percent of the time by the way they smelled. Now, who would smell a mouse in the first place?”
Years later, Roberts said, scientists found that the two mice made slightly different steroids, which may have accounted for their distinctive odors — and reinforced Ohno’s keen observation skills.
Ohno’s wife Midori still lives in the Glendora home they shared. Every day with her husband was filled with excitement, she recalled. “He loved horses, his home, good food and wine,” she said. “And he respected a lot of different kinds of people — not just scientists. He knew famous scientists and cowboys, and for him they were all the same, all people.”
The Ohno symposium will be held from 8 a.m. to 5:30 p.m., Feb. 1, in Cooper Auditorium. For more information, visit www.cityofhope.org/ohnosymposium.