Moselio Schaechter

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December 06, 2011


by Elio

Lynn Margulis, a preeminent figure in modern biology, died suddenly at the age of 73. She was a good and an old friend of mine. When we were both living in Newton, Massachusetts, our spouses wanted nothing better than for us to take the kids out of the house on Sunday mornings. So, we went on countless walks together, the little ones running ahead of us. We talked about lots of topics, most of which I have forgotten. Now, I would dearly love to recall what they were. We have been friends ever since.

Her major contribution, as is widely known, was to cause the endosymbiotic theory of the origin of eukaryotic cells to become accepted as a central tenet in Biology. Although this idea had been proposed earlier, it laid fallow as a neglected and nearly forgotten notion that had little impact. Lynn broke through all the barriers explosively. I have mused about when this revolution would have happened had she not done this. Surely, in time, perhaps 10 or 20 years later, the bacteria-like properties of mitochondria and plastids would have compelled its acceptance. The clincher, of course, would have been the indisputable genomic homology between mitochondria and rickettsiae, and likewise between plastids and cyanobacteria.

What makes it hard to write about Lynn is not only the personal loss I feel. In addition to praising her, I feel obligated to point out that she repeatedly proclaimed views that were not only unorthodox but that seemed indefensible. As one example, she believed that AIDS is caused not by HIV but by some spirochete. Through the years, I've tried to explain this strange devotion to untenable beliefs. Was this the same tenacity that enabled her to fight the endosymbiotic theory battle so successfully? She was one of the most intelligent people I have ever known and therefore I cannot readily dismiss my puzzlement.

She was also one of the best informed biologists going. Her font of knowledge, especially of the protists (which, characteristically, she insisted in calling the Protoctista), was astounding. She knew the old 19th century literature inside and out, including hard-to-find Russian papers. This knowledge she put to use in the numerous books she wrote, some together with her son, Dorion Sagan. Most of these are well worth reading.

I cannot think of anyone more stimulating, more bewildering, more exasperating than Lynn. But, to me, what really matters is that she was a most caring person and a devoted friend. I will miss her.

If you want to read several dozen other reflections and obituaries on Lynn in various languages, visit the blog of Mercé Piqueras, La Lectora Corrent, for her post About Lynn Margulis.


At last, a thoughtful, personal piece on Margulis' passing. While I happen to vehemently disagree with pretty much everything of hers besides plastid and mitochondrial endosymbioses, the vitriol and condescension with which some of the posts were written about her was definitely uncalled for, and frankly irrelevant at this time. And I think there is truth to the thought that a similar character led to both revitalising endosymbiosis research in what is now accepted beyond doubt, and some of her quirkier ideas.

Moreover, while many are prone to opine on the superiority of one approach to science over another, I think we need all (or most) of the approaches. We unarguably need cautious, conservative detail-oriented thinkers who test a small idea a million times over before letting it out, but we also need people who generate hypothesis and synthesise large swaths of fields to do so, and everything in-between, and all sorts of permutations thereof. It is the diversity of thinking that makes science so vibrant, and with this diversity come outliers. Often it is hard to tell what really is a crazy idea, and how mainstream it is does not always correlate with that. I believe there's no harm in publishing *everything*, no matter how absurd an idea may sound -- even something as probably outright wrong as HIV-causing spirochaetes, flagellar endosymbiosis and the jarring term "protoctista" (which, btw, does have historic taxonomic validity at some level). While it's easy to dismiss someone so 'off' as a crackpot, it's a bit harder to do with someone in your own field, especially when this someone has probably done more than anyone in recent memory to publicise the field. For that I do owe gratitude to Margulis, even though we've sadly never met. (perhaps we might have, had it not snowed half a metre that day I was visiting Northampton, MA...)

Lastly, I remember this book I really enjoyed using as a reference when looking at pond water through a microscope as a kid. It had really nice illustrations showing the microorganisms and the habitats they were found it -- creating a much-needed macroscopic context for them. A few months ago, when cleaning some stuff out at my parents' house, I found this book again -- Lynn Margulis et al., The Illustrated Five Kingdoms: A Guide to the Diversity of Life on Earth Little did I know back then that this was to be the first of my ever-expanding collection of protistology books, now directly relevant to making my living!

Elio, I'm sorry for your personal loss.



I can't thank you enough. You have composed a fair and decent view of Lynn's scientific life. I have seen no other such nuanced description of who she was and what she did. I am grateful to you because it expresses my sentiments better than I could.


I'm shocked. I wanted her wisdom to be with us a very long time. I dreamed of having lunch with her. Acquiring Genomes is on my bedside table. I was just this week getting ready to dive into a delicious debate between she and Dawkins with Denis Noble hosting. I'm so utterly sad.

While studying biology, I found Lynn's endosymbiotic theory utterly fascinating. Her interest in spirochetes didn't stop with her claims about AIDS - I was hoping she would shed more light on the comments she made to Discover about Borrelia burgdorferi; now I will never know the full story from her lips.

I am sorry for the loss of your friend. It is tragic when anyone dies, but I think even more so when you have known them a long time.

There are losses that cannot be described. The passing of Lynn is one of those. You have to have known her to understand. She touched many of us with her intense energy and a rare spark of mind and heart that I have not seen in anybody else. I have a copy of her book ‘Luminous fish’ with me. I treasure it. She dedicated it to me, to my husband and to my son ‘with love of life – and its study’. These words also happen to describe who she was.

I can't remember how I came to Lynn Margulis' work in highschool over 30 years ago I think it was from a Lewis Thomas essay on mitochondria. I learned early on from lynn how to look at DETAILS in biology. Her way of finding the most interesting of details regardless of whether her conclusions were going to come out to be well founded or not, tought me how to look at details myself and form my own conclusions.

of course I also learned to see the big picture of the microbiological/geological world from her. to think about the evolution of fungi/plants. To think of the symbiotic nature of life in general.

Her way of seeing the breadth of life out there in her book 5 Kingdoms also openned me up to the incredible disparity, inventiveness of life on this planet. I'm still waiting for someone to write a detailed book on the 50 odd disparate groups of eukaryotes..

She's always been my hero and I wish I had the sense to study with her somehow.

Hemos notado tu importante aporte.  La reacción a su muerte es destacada, tanto desde el punto personal como de la historia de la ciencia.

Hay mucho mas de que hablar. Pronto.


Elio, thank you for writing that wonderful essay, which ranged from the personal to the professional to the critical. Recently, I have watched people---Richard Dawkins comes to mind---cannot help but be mean spirited in the face of LM's passing. I think that such a view says more about the snarker than about the snarkee.

There is plenty of time to write the negative things. A slight mourning period is warranted, particularly given LM's impact on the way we view cell evolution. And for you, nice memories of walks through with woods with children!

Anyway, I only spoke with LM once. As you no doubt know, LM didn't "do" e-mail. So I had written her a letter, and some time had passed. It was a Sunday night, and I was late getting home (my wife's mother warned her not to marry an experimentalist, even at my level). So the phone rang and I picked it up gingerly, expecting a well deserved chiding about my tardiness.

Instead, a voice I didn't know said in a familar tone "My, you are working late."

"And you are calling late," I replied cautiously.

It was Lynn Margulis.

She started talking to me (at me?) regarding her views on the evolution of predation among prokaryotes. I tried to take notes, but she went faster and faster, and the ideas were interesting and intricate, hitting me like paint trips cast by Jackson Pollock. At last, I gave up on taking notes and literally threw the pencil over my shoulder, and just listened---it was like drinking from a fire hose. A lot of ideas, well put.

I learned a great deal from that phone call.

Regarding LM's unorthodox beliefs, well, I know a lot of scientists who believe things I find odd or wrong. Like you, I try to focus on the positive, especially at this time. In an essay after her death, a colleague of LM's recalled LM giving her this piece of advice: "Never be dull."

LM was anything but dull. And she will be missed.

Like you and many other people that got to know Lynn, I also will miss her very much. I have gathered in my blog obituaries and other texts written to pay tribute to Lynn. I have already added yours. There are classified by language. You can see them at

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