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Illinois IGB

Carl R. Woese Guest Book

Carl R. Woese, who overturned one of the major dogmas of biology with the discovery of Archaea, the third domain of life, passed away following complications from pancreatic cancer at the age of 84 on December 30, 2012.

Carl was a long-time member of the Department of Microbiology and both a founding member and an inspirational figure at the IGB. We invite family, friends, and colleagues to share their memories and condolences here.

Would you like to add your comments to the guest book? If so, please email our Director of Communications and Engagement Nicholas Vasi.


Carl Woese who Shaped the Future of the Past

Submitted by Guenter Waechtershaeuser, 03/20/2013

Carl Woese who Shaped the Future of the Past In 1981 George Fox came to Munich to participate in the First International Workshop on Archaebacteria and took the opportunity to visit my wife Dorothy and myself. We had recently become relatives by marriage of his widowed father Charles Fox to my widowed mother-in-law, Laura Gray. George suggested that we should definitely meet Carl Woese, because “Carl likes to talk to people, who are not scientists”. We went out to dinner with Carl and George and talked about a wide range of topics and about that strange antagonism between accuracy and speed that rules the world from molecular biology to technology. Everything I knew at that time about the origin of life was in a paper by Hans Kuhn in Angewandte Chemie. Kuhn had published an account of the origin of RNA in pores of rocks in contact with the prebiotic broth. I was convinced that Kuhn had essentially solved the problem of the origin of life. I mentioned that to Carl. I remember how shocked I was by his comment that there may never have been anything like a prebiotic broth. This dinner in a simple Bavarian restaurant became for me a pivotal intellectual experience. How unconventional Carl was: bold and humble, impassioned and thoughtful, and anything but professorial and condescending. Five years later by the end of 1987 I had written the first 40 pages of a paper concerning the origin of life: “Before enzymes and templates”. Carl invited me to Urbana to discuss it and plan for its publication. When we parted he said: I know one man, who would have an open mind for your ideas. Shall I write him a letter? His name was Otto Kandler. Carl wrote that letter and the result: I as an outsider was in touch with two of the great biologists of our time. Carl was my mentor in all developments of my work. We became close personal friends, telephoning and meeting whenever we could, hither and thither across the Atlantic. Carl Woese discovered the Archaea and thereby revolutionized our conception of the biosphere. All true. But his deeper goal and achievement was to put biology as a science on a par with physics and chemistry. He created the first and only comprehensive evolutionary account of life on Earth, explanatory, predictive and extremely fruitful. It covered all cellular organisms — from microbes to man — spread over nearly the whole lifespan of our planet — and placed them all into a structured connex, within which all fundamental questions of biology are now being restated. Whenever we read a new report in biology, it is the work of Carl Woese that we read between the lines. Carl Woese’s achievement will reverberate throughout the ages.


Dear friend and “Archaekaiser”

Submitted by Otto and Trudy Kandler, 02/27/2013

Your ancient friends miss you and wish you could enjoy all the wonderful contributions to this guest book! Our reminiscences go back to the early period of the age of the Archaea, when you were faced with fierce criticism, but had early admirers and supporters in Germany. In Munich, Otto Kandler and his group studied the cell walls of different groups of bacteria as a contribution to taxonomy and an attempt to clarify phylogenetic relationships. By 1976, they had found that peptidoglycan, the characteristic component of the bacterial cell wall, was lacking in strains of extreme halophiles and a methanogen. They came to the conclusion that these organisms are different from other bacteria. So Ralph Wolfe’s letter (Nov. 11th, 1976) informing Otto about Carl’s 16SrRNA findings and Ralph’s novel coenzymes in “methanogenic bacteria”, was great news. Ralph introduced Otto to Carl in Urbana in January 1977. When Carl explained his fundamental discovery to Otto he was prepared and “understood and accepted immediately” (Carl’s letter, Nov. 10th, 1997). Otto was very excited and after returning to Germany, he informed his coworkers and colleages that he had just “met the Darwin of the 20th century”. The first archaebacteria conference took place in Munich in the spring of 1978 – unfortunately without Carl. At the next archaebacteria meeting in the spring of 1979, Carl came for a lecture and was hailed with fanfare and a brass band in the great entrance hall of the Botanical Institute at the University of Munich. It was a great pleasure for us, when Carl also came for a visit with his charming wife Gabriella, presumeably Carl’s most important supporter! In 1981, the first International Congress on the Archaebacteria was also held in Munich. Carl was on his way to become world-famous. Referring to the very first pieces of evidence for the new concept, Carl would say something like: a chair needs at least three legs to stand on, the first was my 16SrRNA discovery, the second Ralph’s novel coenzymes, the third Otto’s cell wall data, “flesh on the bone”. During his visit, on a beautiful summer day in 1981, Carl, Ralph, Otto and Trudy went hiking in the Alps south of Munich even climbing a mountain (Hochiss, 2299 m). On the top, we gave cheers to the archaebacteria with Bavarian beer and champagne. This was the first celebration of the archaebacteria and the dawning shift of paradigms on the top of a mountain! Carl left a precious entry in our guest book (June, 30 th, 1981): “Everytime I come to Germany, you treat me as a king. I should not come too often, or I might begin to believe it, Archaekönig Wöse”. Afterwards, Otto started his letter to Carl: “Dear friend and Archaekönig”. Carl replied to Otto: “Dear friend and Archaekönig” and ended with “your friend and Archaekaiser”. Otto then continued to Carl: “Dear friend and Archaekaiser”. A close collaboration and correspondence evolved. It turned out that peptidoglycan was missing in all microbes identified as "archaebacteria" by 16SrRNA sequencing. Instead they showed unique cell wall structures. An increasing number of researchers contributed more convincing evidence and, in 1990, after long debates "a natural system of organisms" represented as a universal tree of life in rooted form was proposed. It showed the three domains Archea, Bacteria, Eucarya. Now when the 3-domain concept has conquered the textbooks, the harsh initial opposition it faced may become forgotten. Trudy remebers when a famous scientist, a fierce skeptic, referring to Carl’s German supporters, remarked: “Carl Woese and his German mafia”. Colleagues remember: “Carl Woese and his German army”. What an honor! In a SCIENCE review “Microbiology’s scarred revolutionary” (Virginia Morell, 1997), Carl recalled his past sufferings and that he felt strengthened by Ralph Wolfe, Norman Pace and Otto Kandler. When “Archaekaiser” Carl received the Crafoord prize in Stockholm in 2003, at one occasion there, he graciously called Otto the “greatgrandfather of the Archaea”. What a nomination! Afterwards Carl wrote in a letter (Oct. 15th, 2003): “Now the archaes have been knighted! This is a glorious day for the field.” Of course it was also a glorious day for the “Archaekaiser”! Unfortunately, because of Otto’s poor health condition, we were not able to meet Carl again. Carl kindly wrote wonderful warm-hearted and sympathetic letters to cheer up Otto. It was a unique experience to witness the origin of the Archaea, Bacteria, Eucarya era, which was also the origin of our friendship. Thank you so much, Carl. You will remain a dear guest in our hearts. We would like to express our profound sympathies with Gabriella Woese and family and with Carl’s friends and followers.


My condolences to Carl's

Submitted by Mike Dyall-Smith, 02/12/2013

My condolences to Carl's family, relatives, friends and work colleagues. He enriched the lives of many people. I first became aware of Carl Woese in the 1980s, through reading his papers. I realized his discoveries were radically changing the entire field of microbiology. All of a sudden we could make sense of the relationships between bacteria, and there in front of us was a sparkling new world of previously unknown (micro)organisms to explore, ask questions about, and discover new biology. For me, as a recent Ph.D. graduate in Australia, it was just too exciting an opportunity to miss out on. I met Carl just once, at a conference in 1988, and I recall that he was a very quiet person. Others there told me about the very vocal criticism he had received at a preceding conference (the word 'shouting' was mentioned), so I could understand his demeanor. In any case, his work, and the rapidly accumulating mass of data from other laboratories around the world, all pointed clearly in the same direction. The evidence spoke for itself, so he didn't need to defend what was obvious (to all but a few). I remember that right through the 1980s, the standard microbiology text books we used for undergraduate courses said almost nothing about the archaebacteria. Regardless of the reasons for this (that is another story), I made sure that in my lectures the students were informed about the discovery, the discoverers, and the significance of the 3rd Domain of life. Over the years, I saw the biologists in other fields, mycology, botany and zoology, gradually pick up ribosomal RNA sequencing and then quickly realize that what Carl had been saying all along was true - it gave them unprecedented insight into the relationships between organisms, at all levels, from yeasts to trees. I suspect this must have been very satisfying for Carl. I hope he was also pleased at the opportunities and entire new fields of science that his discoveries provided to new generations of scientists. I certainly benefited from this, and it remains a very exciting field to be in. Thanks Carl.


“Think of the reader and you will write your best.”

Submitted by David Graham, 02/06/2013

Excellent advice that Carl gave me, but still intimidating 15 years later as I try to convey what an unexpected and incomparable privilege it was to work with Carl and Gary Olsen during the late 90’s while I completed my dissertation. The first archaeal genome sequences were arriving and each conserved gene was a glimpse of the familial fabric that was possibly inherited from the progenotes. While there have been excellent descriptions of Carl’s insights into Translation, his enduring legacy of a robust molecular phylogeny of life, and the discovery of Archaea, his 1978 article “Archaebacteria” with Linda Magrum and George Fox described another motivation: “The real question biology will come to face is not whether two of the three lines of descent are more closely related to each other than to the third. It is, rather, the deeper but ill-defined question (or set of questions) having to do with the nature of the progenotes and how they become procaryotes, and how the eucaryotes have formed from various simpler entities.” The complexities of evolution did not discourage Carl from this vision. Responding to Francois Jacob’s concept of evolution as Tinkering, Carl remarked, “Evolution is no tinker. Evolution is a schlub who never finishes anything.” I don’t know who introduced the ironic concept of Woese’s Army, which Carl later defined as “an unorganized intellectual rabble that shares a vision.” But I would gladly sign up to join this rabble. I offer my condolences to his personal family and his scientific family who loved his modest and self-deprecating wit, his brilliant insights, and his ability to wrestle the English language into phrases that distilled science with Beauty.



Submitted by Karl Stetter, Munich, Germany, 01/31/2013

Already in 1977, Otto Kandler had informed me of Carl Woese`s novel findings: the incredible messages of the so far "impossible" synopsis of a microbe-including universal phylogenetic tree and the discovery of the archaea. To me, Carl appeared eons ahead of the frowsty and boring patchwork attempts of classification! His revolutionary in-depth results intoxicated me immediately and completely changed my scientific interests.Already during Carl`s first visit in Munich in 1979, Wolfram Zillig and I were able to show him our ultimate results on archaeal RNA polymerases. Their structure was strikingly different from the bacterial type, strongly confirming Carl`s three- domain concept.Carl became my most important, highly stimulating collaborator and a good friend, in addition. As a passionate microbe hunter, I wanted to further explore the new continent of microbes and Carl very much stimulated me to do so. During the last 30 years, we discovered the hyperthermophiles. As Carl found out, these represented members of novel deep-branching archaeal and bacterial lineages within the universal tree of life. Carl Woese`s work has changed our view of the whole living world. Thank you, Carl for all the scintillating excitement you had brought into my scientific work! Very unfortunately, your body has died, now, a great loss to your family and the scientific world. However, your ground-breaking discoveries are immortal and will last forever to your fame and to the benefit of mankind.


A lovely modest man

Submitted by Alice Goldenfeld, 01/30/2013

I would like to offer my sincerest condolences to Carl’s family. It is always too soon to lose a loved one; there is never a right time. I speak from the heart not quoting from a text book. I am neither one of Carl’s post docs, nor an academic nor an eminent professor. I am Nigel’s mother. I first met Carl many years ago, soon after I lost my husband. I found him to be a very caring, sincere and gentle person and very easy to talk to. We struck up a bond so that every time I visited my family and, of course, went to Nigel’s office, Carl would come to see me and we talked about anything and everything but never about his brilliant achievements. I could not believe that a distinguished professor like Carl would be interested in my mundane every day life. I shall miss him, possibly in a different way from all his fellow academics but, as a friend. He will leave a void in my visits to Champaign but I am happy and privileged to have known such a lovely modest man. Carl, I will miss your sense of humour and our discussions! Shalom! Ali Goldenfeld


Teaching the teacher

Submitted by Ed Bassett, 01/29/2013

Four years ago I sent Dr. Woese an email (out of the blue) with a question about his rRNA research. His immediate reply was simply, “The attached papers should provide you with the answer to your question.” More papers and in-depth communication followed. Carl may not have been taking on new graduate students but he took on this high school biology teacher in a one-on-one course in evolution. Some of his assignments (books and papers to read and discuss) were very difficult, but he was patient with me and I learned more than I would have in a graduate level course. By the end of 2009 he declared that I had completed “Woese 101.” The exchanges continued, and the topics became more fundamental and sometimes esoteric, but always stimulating. In May 2010, Carl invited me to Urbana, where I had the pleasure to meet and talk with Debbie, Nigel, Gary, Isaac, Jim, and other colleagues around campus. The highlight of my visit was a trip to the old lab where Carl pulled out some of the old films from his rRNA catalogs. He walked me through the process from chromatography and electrophoresis to the mind-numbing interpretation of those films. When he showed me a film from a methanogen, I asked him how long it took to realize that this was something fundamentally different. “Immediately” was his immediate response. That is a memory I will take to my grave. Such a brilliant man. He made me feel that my job as a biology teacher was every bit as important as that of the scientist. He made me a better teacher. I cherish the memories of our relationship. Bits of all of us died with Carl, but a part of Carl lives on in each of us.


Thank you Carl

Submitted by Bill Inskeep, 01/26/2013

I had the privilege of meeting and talking with Carl in Urbana after being introduced by fellow colleague Bruce Fouke. It was an honor to have Carl attend a seminar that I presented, but the more important point is the warmth of genuine personal and scientific interest Carl expressed to me during a visit to discuss various aspects of high-temperature archaea. I will remember his kindness and insight during that very brief moment,and appreciate everything that the Illinois group has done to continue his legacy.


Lasting Impressions

Submitted by Aaron Best, 01/25/2013

I send my deepest sympathies to Carl's family, friends and colleagues. I am privileged to have spent time with Carl on a near daily basis during my graduate and postdoctoral studies in Urbana from about 2001-2004; it is a time that profoundly impacted my view of science, life (in the biology sense), and life (in the personal sense). My decision to come to Urbana for graduate school in 1996 rested upon a naive notion that I could eventually work with Carl (he was, of course, no longer accepting students). Instead, I worked with Gary Olsen (a genius in his own right -- it always amazed me how there could be so much intellectual power in one hallway), which in time led me down the hall to Carl's lab. I am grateful to Carl for his willingness to accept me into his lab and am forever indebted to him for the impromptu, profound discussions of science, life and life; these are conversations that I will never forget. As I reflect on Carl, I most often think of how he deeply felt the world around him... the world itself and the people around him. His understanding of the natural world was unparalleled. He would greet colleagues and friends with genuine joy; his smile went straight to his eyes. He would come away from these meetings with deep satisfaction. I think this reflected in him a fundamental need and desire for truth -- in his relationships and in his science. His search for truth was genuine. In my role as an educator and research mentor, I strive to impart to my undergraduate students the ideals that Carl embodies for scientific inquiry, the profound impact of his work, and the implications of his work on what is to come. I try also to give them a sense of who he was. It is a great honor to have learned from him and to have traveled the same path for a time with Carl. May Peace be with Carl and his loved ones.


Carl Woese--One of the Best, and, a character!

Submitted by John R. Spear, 01/25/2013

I first met Carl at the 1998 Microbial Diversity Course offered by the Marine Biological Laboratory in Woods Hole, MA. Carl was a frequent visitor of our course, and made many contributions to this important summer course over many years! His contributions have been greatly appreciated by many over the years spent with the Diversity Course. I was lucky in that I struck up a communication with Carl that continued for many years. Jump ahead to five or six years later when I had a job interview in the Engineering Division at the University of Illinois. On my highly structured interview day, I had a late addition interview slot added--to meet with Carl. Walking into a conference room outside of his office area was like a breath of fresh air on a stress filled interview day! My immediate thought was, my people! He was relaxed and happy to see me and talk. We had a great visit, and it really eased my nerves. He hoped that I could land the job at Illinois, to join and add to the amazing microbiological history of Illinois, but admitted that he had no say in the matter. Following, Carl escorted me to my next appointment on the schedule in a different building. We walked across the campus a bit, into the next building to head to the 3rd or 4th floor. I asked him, stairs or elevator? He said stairs, and that surprised me. Next thing I know, Carl is bounding up the stairs, excited to deliver the next interviewee to the search committee member. Carl knocked on the door of professor so-and-so, and the professor answered. His jaw practically hit the ground when Carl said, "Hi, I'm Carl Woese and this is John Spear, your job candidate." Professor so-and-so stumbled over a quick thank you. When Carl left, the professor said to me, "I've certainly heard of Carl Woese but I have never seen nor met him, I was shocked to have him standing at my door! How the hell did you meet him?"--was his next question. I did not get the job at Illinois. But, I remained friends with Carl. He was a mentor to all. To me, he represented the best a scientist can offer! Carl--was an amazing character! The Barenaked Ladies have sung, "Mad Science. History. Unraveling the Mystery!--It all Started with a BIG BANG!" For us microbiologists that big bang was Carl. Our Best.


Carl Woese : A gentle giant who sought only Truth

Submitted by Ed DeLong, 01/24/2013

There are so many stories and anecdotes one could share about Carl, and his inspirational impacts on so many individuals, the science of microbiology, and our understanding of the evolution of life on Earth. He pointed the way for so many of us, even if it took some of us awhile to appreciate the profound realities to which he was pointing, so obvious to him. He truly was a revolutionary and never afraid to buck tradition when it got in the way of science. He was uniquely prolific, erudite, and enthusiastic in communicating the new truths that he so continuously and consistently realized. It was not unusual to get an enthusiastic emails from exclaiming “Here comes the cavalry!” announcing a new insight, discovery or contribution. Carl’s insights rang deep and profound, and at the same time, he was so delightfully light-hearted in his enthusiasm when a major work was done, like a kid at Christmas, whenever he grasped and proffered a new ray of insight. I personally owe a great, great debt of gratitude to Carl, as a mentor, a friend, a role model, and for his constant encouragement. He was impeccably (sometimes brutally !) honest, uncompromising in his scientific standards and ethics, and forever driven to seek the truth about the evolution and origins of life on Earth. We will be following in his footsteps for centuries to come, trying to catch up with him. Here’s to Carl, a role model for us all, who walked the road less traveled with care, dignity, compassion, and piercing insight.


Thank you Dr. Woese

Submitted by Brett Mommer, 01/22/2013

One of the great biologists of our time. It was my good fortune to be able to meet him during his final years here at the U of I. To Dr. Woese and all scientists who spent their lives in the struggle to advance our knowledge of life and the universe, thank you.


A great man

Submitted by Marsha Dunlap, 01/16/2013

I had the honor of working for Carl Woese for over 14 years during my time in the Department of Microbiology. During this time I learned much from a mentor in education and my memories are numerous. I had the honor of being his assistant to see him receive his National Medal of Science and the Crafoord Prize and filmed for the Discovery Channel special. I cherish the pictures that I have along with letters, books and memories that he gave to me over the years. He was a man that was both brilliant and the man next door. I remember one time he told me the story of he had just won some high honor and had walked into the Baskin and Robbins with his son and the person behind the counter said "you are Carl Woese, Robert's father". Carl R Woese will be missed by his colleagues, family, friends and those that have crossed paths with him during his life time.


One Story

Submitted by Nicholas Chia, 01/15/2013

I had the luxury of working with Carl as a postdoc, and many of those years in the adjacent office, as he had chosen to eschew the view of "Darwin's Playground" out the IGB windows. There are countless stories to choose from and many of them perhaps more meaningful than the one that is currently stuck in my head. On my first summer after arriving at UIUC, I had come up with an interesting new theory involving horizontal gene transfer, the nature of which is unimportant to the story. Needless to say, as a young postdoc trying to make his way in the world, I was anxious to write it up into a paper and have it published. Through phone conversations with Carl, I eventually convinced him of the importance of my new theory and we were both excited. I quickly asked "What should we do next?" and began niggling him toward publication, additional models, and the like to which Carl continuously replied "No." A bit baffled, and feeling slightly put off, I finally asked "What do you want me to do?" The reply: "Think deep thoughts." Needless to say, my initial impression was "What does this even mean?" and "As opposed to shallow thoughts?" Nonetheless, Carl was not to budge from his instruction. Nor would he elaborate. However, being in somewhat good humor at the earnestness at which Carl tried to convince me to think deep thoughts, I began trying to figure out what that even meant. So an entire summer was spent in deep thought until by the end I found myself attempting to connect the origin of life to antibiotic resistance and all points in between in one fluid biological picture. And I have never felt truly lost in the biological sciences since.


A Noble, Dedicated, and Inspired Seeker of Truth

Submitted by Daniel Baker, 01/14/2013

I have had only a handful of occasions with which to interact with Carl, but they have stuck like frozen images. He was thoroughly amiable, which was a surprise given his prominence. A man of consistent and critical importance in our understanding of life itself for many years. He didn't mince words and was to-the-point about the science itself and thinking in new ways - fundamental and actually new ways - which is so rare and precious, even among the best minds in our day. In particular, I remember an occasion where I told him that it was an honor to finally meet him. He graciously accepted the compliment, acknowledging its veracity. And that was charming: accurate self-perception, without boasting but also without hiding behind false modesty. He knew who he was and wasn't afraid to be it. While it's truly sorrowing that he's passed, his body of work extends for study itself and, of course, leads to many, many new questions which will yield bountiful harvest for years to come. Thank you, Carl. Requiescat In Pace.


A Very Special Man

Submitted by Joy Hakim, 01/14/2013

The biology teacher sitting next to me whispered in my ear, “Do you know where we are?” Sure I did. We were in Urbana, in an Italian restaurant, sitting across the table from Carl Woese. I’m an explainer, a storyteller, not a scientist, but I’d figured out after a bit of research that Carl Woese was the greatest evolutionary biologist of our time, maybe of all time. So I sent him an email. I said that kids and their parents read my books, that I wanted to try and tackle the evolutionary logjam, and could he help me? That started an email liaison. I asked questions. He answered, usually with clarity and wit, a few times with exasperation, often with eloquence. I told him that in another incarnation he should be a writer, and I meant it. I’d found, after I began reading his scientific papers, that he expressed himself with a directness and elegance few professional writers can match. Then he invited me to Urbana and a tour of the legendary lab where he nailed archaea. He also made sure that I heard explanations of cutting edge biology and saw an animation of that ubiquitous and very ancient critter: the ribosome. I learned a whole lot of evolutionary biology in two days, which was the point of the trip. But something about Carl reached me on a level I hadn’t expected. I found that I cared about the man. He was more than a brilliant scientist, or email pal, he was a real person: inspiring and, yes, flawed, his impatience with mere mortals is legendary, but he was also sensitive, caring, funny, vulnerable, and passionate about the subject to which he devoted his life. I miss him.


Carl - A Friend and Mentor

Submitted by Richard H Baltz, 01/13/2013

I was a graduate student and postdoctoral fellow in the Microbiology Department at the University of Illinois from 1968-1974. At that time, the Microbiology Department was one of the top three in the USA. Carl was a relatively young faculty member in a Department that was distinguished by Sol Spiegelman and others. I was attracted to the U. of Illinois for graduate studies after hearing a compelling seminar by Sol Spiegelman at Eli Lilly and Company, where I had taken a position of research associate after completing a BS degree at Ohio State in 1966. I first encountered Carl Woese in a Molecular Biology course taught by Paul Sypherd. Carl was an unannounced guest lecturer, and he walked in wearing jeans, a bulky sweater, and had a giant key ring with perhaps 250 keys. My first thought was “is this guy the janitor?”. He proceeded to lecture on the evolution of the genetic code. As luck would have it, Carl was assigned to my thesis committee. At my preliminary exam, Carl had two questions: “How fast do DNA and mRNA polymerize in bacteria?”; and “Write the Poisson equation”. I did some calculations on the polymerization rates and wrote the Poisson equation on the blackboard. At the end of the questioning period, one of the others on the committee asked Carl if I got the answers right on the polymerization rate: Carl simply shrugged his shoulders as if he did not know the answers. Apparently, Carl was looking for my ability to synthesize and reason from little data. He also knew that I would know the Poisson distribution inside out, because I was a student of Jan Drake. It was nice to have Carl as a supporter during the prelim, and later I had many scientific discussions with him in the hallways of Burrill Hall. He would discuss ideas and share publications to stimulate further thought, even though I was not his student. Carl also joined the graduate students periodically on Friday afternoons for beer and pizza at Trinos. He lived the science and inspired those around him. I think that he felt on the cusp of something really big, and seemed frustrated by being in the shadow of Sol Spiegleman. (Ironically, the only contact I had with Sol Spiegelman was to hear one lecture in Paul Sypherd’s class). After leaving the U. of Illinois in 1974, I had periodic contacts with Carl. In 1977, I happened to be in Urbana visiting friends when Carl’s picture appeared on the front page of the New York Times—he was sitting with his feet on the desk in typical Woesian style. He, Ralph Wolfe, and colleagues had just discovered the third kingdom of organisms, the Archaea. I stopped by his lab and left a cryptic note on one of his many light boxes for illuminating the T1 digestions of 16S rRNA. I don’t know if he saw it, but I ran into him at a Conference on Genetic Engineering for Chemicals at the U. of Illinois in 1980. I went with some friends to Trinos after the first day lectures, and saw Carl at a table with some of the world leaders in RNA research. When he saw me, he got up and gave me a big bear hug. That is a moment that I will always cherish. I have visited Urbana infrequently in the last three decades, but visited with Carl to discuss science whenever possible. I attended the Symposium celebrating the 35th anniversary of the discovery of Archaea in 2007, and still have the T-shirt from the event. I continue to wear it in admiration for Carl! I introduced my youngest daughter, Emily, to Carl when she was 5; now she is 19, and a second year student at the U. of Illinois studying neuroscience. It was a great privilege to reintroduce Emily to Carl at the Genome Center in 2011. It has been an honor to have Carl as a friend and mentor. He will be missed by many who knew him, and by many who did not, but who have benefitted from his insights and discoveries that have enhanced our understanding of biology and evolution.


Remembering Carl

Submitted by George Fox, 01/13/2013

Remembering Carl is remembering the very best of times for me. Countless hours of discussion about big science questions was a dream come true! Actually, my joining the lab was something of a fluke. I was a chemical engineer interested in pursuing theoretical biology and was a member of Theta Tau fraternity at Syracuse. As it happened, Carl’s father was one of the founders of our chapter and so I had been required to know his name. So when I happened upon Carl’s name and his ribosome ratchet story I recognized this as the man I wanted to work with. When I wrote to him I guess he saw the same Syracuse connection as karma and had an opening because of Mitch Sogin’s recent departure. Suddenly there I was analyzing 5S rRNA catalog data that the Sogins had produced and soon thereafter 16S data as well. Along the way we had many memorable experiences and I will relate a few. It soon became my job to collect the mail from upstairs each day. I would bring it down and Carl would tell me to put it over on a table near the fingerprint reading area that was covered with a variety of unused stuff. But Carl would never get around to looking at it, so I soon realized that I had to scan it for important stuff like letters from editors where the lab had papers pending etc. As this went on day after day the pile got higher and higher. Finally, after several months I slipped up and the pile fell over into an empty trash basket that “just happened” to be next to the table. I started to retrieve things and Carl interrupted to say “leave it”. Another interesting event occurred when Carl was selected to run the Departmental seminar and so decided that the Dept. needed to learn about ribosomes. I don’t recall all the speakers but one was a young Joan Steitz. One day Carl told me Harry Noller was coming. I had never heard of Harry, but recalled that the author of my four inch thick organic chemistry book was a Harry F. Noller. I showed the book to Carl and asked if this was the guy who was coming. Carl was distraught that he had unknowingly invited some likely arrogant big shot. Then in a couple of days a young long haired Harry showed up and Carl and he became instant friends. Then came the fire. My wife was on her way to pick me up at the lab. She parked in a delivery spot near the building and as she got out of the car she saw smoke and realized the car was on fire. She ran upstairs to find me but I wasn’t there. She told Carl what was happening and he ran to the sink, filled a one liter beaker with water, and ran down the steps to save our car. The fire department got there first. On a more serious note Carl was 100% involved in the science. One day he began to notice that certain key separations on the secondary and tertiary fingerprints were not working the way they should leaving some oligo sequences indeterminate. Carl and Linda Magrum soon tracked down the problem to certain rolls of DEAE paper. He got the offending lot numbers and contacted Whatman. It ultimately turned out that the person who was responsible for making the paper was no longer with the company and they had been unable to duplicate the formula exactly. So Carl had Whatman tell him how many rolls they had of each lot number that Carl knew worked. He then went to the NASA Exobiology program manager who funded the fingerprint work and got a $20,000 (or thereabouts) supplement so that he could buy all the remaining good paper from Whatman. Perhaps my greatest memory was the famous Eureka moment. Bill Balch had figured out how to grow methanogens effectively and so we began efforts to fingerprint them. The first prep had lousy P-32 incorporation and we could only get useful labeled 5S rRNA. Ken Luehrsen did the fingerprint and found it contained the sequence UUAAG that had previously only been found in eukaryotic 5S rRNAs. The methanogen 5S was also missing several common 5S oligos. That peaked our interest, and we quickly tried again. We got good labeled 16S this time and when Linda gave Carl the fingerprint. Without any secondary or tertiary analysis Carl immediately saw that two universal modified residues were missing. He immediately came to every room in the lab proclaiming that we had found a new form of life. He then pointed out that this was of course contingent on my having not screwed up the 16S rRNA isolation. Instead of simply repeating the same organism, we did another methanogen with essentially the same result and the Archaea were on the way! Carl had essentially no interest in anything other than doing the science. He didn’t want to build a mega lab and serve on big time advisory committees etc. His objective was always answering the big questions. His philosophy was simple-if you decide to do something make sure that if it works as planned that it will say something worthwhile. If there is competition from others doing essentially the same thing (assuming they knew how to do it) then Carl would say let them do it-our skills are more useful elsewhere. Carl’s contributions were enormous and he will be remembered as one of the greatest scientists of our time. I and others already miss him immensely.


One of my scientific heroes

Submitted by Rolf Thauer, 01/13/2013

Having met Carl Woese for the first time in 1974, when I spent two weeks in Urbana giving lectures on microbial bioenergetics for students of Ralph Wolfe and Marvin Bryant, I had the privilege of closely following Carl’s groundbreaking work on the phylogeny of microbes from almost the very beginning. During the nearly 40 years since then, we met numerous times in Urbana and Germany. In 1976, I began working with methanogens, which were amongst the first microorganisms recognized by Carl to belong to a new domain of life. Their unique cell wall structures elucidated by Otto Kandler’s group and their novel coenzymes discovered by Ralph Wolfe’s group provided more evidence to convince me early on of Carl’s revolutionary concept. In 1977, I introduced 16S rRNA phylogeny in lectures to my students in Marburg, where I had become Professor of Microbiology the previous year. My admiration and respect for Carl are endless. I wish to send my sincere condolences to Carl’s family and to his many friends throughout the world.


Prof. Carl Woese: A tribute

Submitted by Charu Gupta Kumar, 01/12/2013

I was introduced to Prof. Carl Woese as a Ph.D student when I attended a seminar presented by him in early 2000-2001. That was all the introduction I needed. I sat though some of the lectures for his class titled ‘Gene Action’ in Spring of 2002, and then decided to credit the same class, in Spring 2003. It was perhaps one of those unforgettable moments to observe his style of teaching, as he would casually lounge back in his chair, feet up on the desk, and hands resting behind his head. The dialogues were these beautiful stories on how life may have begun, the importance of “molecular” phylogeny, evolution of tRNA synthetases, and eventually complexity using books by Kaufmann as our required readings. He had started the class by asking us to write a small paper on why we wanted to attend his class. The influence my Ph.D. advisor, Harris Lewin, and then Prof. Woese had on my thinking was already paramount in what I wrote, and I recreate part of that short paper here at the end of this comment. Right there something like this preps you to focus on the reasons why understanding evolution is important for your work and where are the black-holes in your knowledge. He took the time to get to know us. I once asked him how he kept in such good health, and he said I do yoga, and didn’t hesitate to ask me if there was an asana for back pain. Right there on the classroom floor, I had the pleasure of showing him the spinal twist asana that helps with back pain! His openness to discuss even his philosophy of teaching was endearing. Spring 2003 was also the semester when he received the Crafoord prize, and we in the class were all honored to have shared those moments with him. He never hesitated to share the letters of felicitations that he received from others, including one from Sydney Brenner, and regaled us with plenty of anecdotes. This class was easily the most memorable class I have ever attended and learnt so much from. He was also my mentor, and through just a simple comment, he has set the course of my career. After my Ph.D., I was lost in what I should do for my post-doctoral research given my somewhat varied interests in neuroscience as well. I approached him to seek his thoughts. He looked at me, and said if you really want to get into neuroscience, there is only one way to study the brain and that is using systems biology. He further added that he knew of only Nathan Price in IGB who was doing work in that field. For me, the path was set, and working with Nathan has been one of the most illuminating periods of my life, next to the years I spent working with Harris on novel genes during my Ph.D. My office during my post-doc was opposite his, and would observe him interacting with others, particularly Jim Davis (his post-doc), Debbie, and Nigel. His joy in interacting with others was infectious, and his concentration when he worked at his computer eye-opening. I would look at him, and go that is the way to live when one grows old. Age just represents a deeper level of abstraction that our mind and brain have achieved, and he was a living example. ####### Here follows a small part of the introduction to Biology I wrote for his class in Spring of 2003. ####### "Biology should be the study of the diversity in life, its evolution, and the principles, both genetic and physical, that govern it. In the words of E.O. Wilson, “The world is a material world that is organized by laws of physics and evolves according to the laws of evolution.” The study of Biology should not be distinct from the study of Physics and Mathematics, but in hand with these other physical and computational sciences. It was studied as a science and philosophy by early Greek thinkers such as Plato, Aristotle, Leonardo da Vinci, and in the past millennium by Charles Darwin. The past century has seen a revolution in molecular biology and molecular techniques used to study the molecular basis of evolution in species. Only a small fraction of the existing species has been studied in depth, and the genomes of an even smaller fraction have been sequenced. The field of Bioinformatics is providing scientists with the much-needed tools and algorithms to make sense of the existing information that is filling up the databases faster than the derivable knowledge".


A Humble Giant

Submitted by Yong-Qing Yang, 01/12/2013

Carl is the only one I personally know who achived so much, yet remained very humble. His continuous curiosity and eagerness to explore new things with an open mind, even in his later years, are two things I hope I can learn and practice the way he did. In an email exchange with a friend who used to work for Carl, I said the following about Carl: "I was very impressed with his openness to other things, like eastern philosophy etc, and even took the time to learn Qi Gong from me (I remember teaching him beside one of the hills near Orchard Down in Urbana). One segment each week was our teaching schedule (there are fives segments on the moving parts of the Qi Gong I taught him and he always showed up on time at the place, mostly in that red-colored grid shirt as we see from pictures in the news these days)." I will miss him very much! Carl, 一路走好!


my friend

Submitted by Debbie Piper, 01/11/2013

I was Dr. Woese’s assistant at the IGB for the past six years. I feel fortunate to have known him, and even more so to have known him well. When I first came to the IGB in early 2007, I knew little of Dr. Woese: who he was, what he did or what his incredible achievements were. I just found this guy in his office, much the same as many of you remember him… leaning back in his chair with that shock of white hair, plaid flannel shirt and feet propped up on his desk in an old pair sneakers. To me, he was just Dr. Woese. Over the years we became good friends. We found many things to talk and laugh about. We shared a love of books, music, flowers in the yard and the simpler joys of life. He had an irreverent sense of humor and most of the people on the third floor of the IGB have heard that big laugh of his coming from down the hall. I have never had as much fun working with anyone. Dr. Woese was unique. I learned so much from him, even when he wasn’t trying to explain something about evolution to me. He could actually be quite silly sometimes. I would often offer food to him that I’d cooked or baked, and one time it was lamb chili. Here is his response: “I do not eat lamb. I do not believe in killing animals in the flower of their youth. That's why I don't eat things like deep-fried puppy, or kitten-kebobs. Tadpoles with alfalfa sprouts is OK though, so long as they are cooked.” He made me laugh, a lot. He could also write beautifully, and I could fill pages with passages he has written that are incredibly eloquent. A couple of years ago, he stayed behind a couple of weeks while his family went on to their summer home and we invited him to our home for dinner. It was a perfect Midwest summer evening. So he wouldn’t have to make the drive, we went in to pick him up in our car. We took the back roads through the cornfields with the convertible top down. He rode shotgun, with a big smile on his face and that white hair blowing in the wind. What a sight. He often spoke of that ride. He remembered the cornfields. I’ll always remember how he looked and how happy he was that night. Though I could never fully understand his science, I understood his love of science. There is a video on YouTube of an interview the Discovery Channel did with Dr. Woese as part of a series called “The 100 Greatest Discoveries.” ( You must watch it. He explains how the worlds of biology and microbiology believed there were only two domains of life and says, “It wasn’t true.” He continues and says, “It does make you smile, doesn’t it? Look what I found.” He was like a kid, with the excitement of discovering treasure. “Look-What-I-Found!” With the passing of Dr. Woese, the world of science mourns the loss of one of its greatest minds. The University and the IGB mourn the loss of a distinguished academic. His students and colleagues mourn the loss of a teacher and mentor. His family mourns the loss of a husband and father. I mourn the loss of my friend. Look what I found!


My condolences

Submitted by Jonathan Eisen, 01/11/2013

I did not know Carl personally but he has had a deep, profound, and positive effect on my career as a scientist. In 1989, when I was an undergraduate, I was given a paper of his on "Bacterial evolution" that I carried around with me almost wherever I went. I read and reread it many times and still have the marked up, torn, crinkled paper in my office. After reading this and other works of Carl's and others I became, well, a bit obsessed with the Tree of Life, with archaea, and with phylogenetic diversity in general. I spent a few years in graduate school working on archaea because, well, they just seemed so fascinating. And then I spent the last 10 years of my career trying to increase the phylogenetic coverage of genome sequences largely inspired by papers and talks of Carl's. To put it simply, my career would have been profoundly different without the interactions I had with Carl through his papers and talks. In the last few years I had a few communications with him via email that were also very impactful. I have made a blog page dedicated to him and his work… and will continue to add to it as his work continues to shape science in the future. My sincerest condolences for his family, friends and colleagues and for the scientific community in general.


A true role model

Submitted by Joleen Su, 01/11/2013

I didn't get a chance to speak directly to Dr. Carl Woese, but his research and discoveries greatly inspired me as both a student and researcher. My parents took me to a lecture on his work as I was entering college, and ever since then I always viewed him as a role model. His work made a tremendous impact on science, and going to IGB everyday and seeing Dr. Woese there was a great motivator for tackling new problems. I was also always impressed with how personable he was to everyone at IGB. My thoughts go out to his family and friends.


Carl Woese - Teacher, Friend

Submitted by Daniel Wolf, 01/11/2013

Met Carl Woese and took his Molecular Genetics class (Zoology 405) in fall 1972, a fascinating experience that conveyed his profoundly creative insight. Many visits with Carl and discussions on topics scientific and otherwise (sometimes over a beer - or two) continued for well over 20 years because that one class sparked an enduring interest in his ideas. His teaching, discoveries, and role at the IGB should inspire future students. IGB's Carl Woese Research Fund is a nice tribute to his achievements and memory. Carl was a brilliant and influential teacher and friend. Sincerest condolences to his family, friends, and colleagues.


A huge loss.

Submitted by Karl Fogel, 01/11/2013

Carl was warm and humorous and ever-curious -- I hesitate even to call him a "boss", as the word sounds wrong when applied to him, though technically he was my boss in 1994-5 (I worked on a gene sequence alignment editing program for the lab). He taught instinctively and very well; although I was an employee, not enrolled at the University, he nevertheless took the time to teach me about what his team was doing and its larger biological context. In the years since, we remained in touch; I miss him terribly now, and that won't stop. My heartfelt condolences to his family and to other friends and colleagues.



Submitted by Neil Kelleher, 01/11/2013

When I came to the University of Illinois in 1999, Carl was a gracious informal mentor to me. At that time, I wanted to discover unknown modifications in the Archaea, and he was totally supportive (wrote letters, taught me, etc.). I'll never forget a late evening beer (or two) with him musing about the origins of Life on our planet. I believe he was enlightened beyond most on such topics. What an incredibly human being, and I'm just happy I got to know him. With best personal regards, Neil


My condolences

Submitted by Erko Stackebrandt, 01/10/2013

I had been the first foreign postdoc in Carl's lab at the end of 1977, George Fox and Linda Bonen left and I remember that the lab was completely empty at these cold December days. And then Carl arrived, the cold was forgotten, replaced by many hot milliCuries of P32 and Carl's intensive teaching of the MasterMind puzzle of unraveling even short sequences of rRNA oligonucleotides. I was not so much interested in deciphering the origin of life - one could not escape - but rewriting the systematics of Bacteria. We fully succeeded though after 12 months in Urbana I was dreaming of black oligo spots. Carl and his coworkers, including myself published many papers which were the origin of the taxonomy revolution and the fact that rRNA gene sequencing is now taught in undergraduate classes goes back to those days. Carl has been my mentor, my idol, my friend, and in my lifetime this position will not be filled. The time in Urbana-Champaign with Carl will stay forever in my memory.