UC Berkeley biochemist dies at 97

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Howard Schachman, a biochemist and professor in the graduate school of molecular and cellular biology who is remembered for his social activism, sense of humor and contributions to the field of biochemistry, died from complications of pneumonia Aug. 5 in Oakland. He was 97 years old.

Schachman received his doctorate in physical chemistry from Princeton University in 1948 when he began teaching at UC Berkeley under the mentorship of Nobel prize laureate Wendell Stanley. Beyond Schachman’s aptitude for biochemistry, his wisdom and ability to give advice were among some of his most memorable qualities.

“Howard was a man of great intelligence and great wisdom that he faithfully imparted on students and colleagues alike,” said campus professor of biochemistry and molecular biology Michael Botchan.

As a biochemist, Schachman was a foremost exponent of the ultracentrifuge — an instrument used to look at the structure of proteins — and wrote a widely read textbook detailing its uses. His most significant work encompassed the study of enzymes and how to alter their activity, a phenomenon known as allostery.

Along with professor of the graduate school of cell and developmental biology John Gerhart, Schachman made seminal discoveries surrounding the enzyme known as aspartate transcarbamoylase. Together, they were able to identify and study the enzyme in its different states both in the presence and absence of substrates and regulators.

“He really saw that basic research was important and should be for understanding biological issues — not for making money,” said Sondra Schlesinger, a professor of molecular microbiology at Washington University School of Medicine.

Schachman’s role as an academic frequently intermingled with his relentless dedication to social and political causes. From 1949 to 1951, Schachman was one of 200 faculty members who protested the UC regents requiring faculty members to take a loyalty oath denouncing involvement with Communist groups.

During the Free Speech Movement of the 1960s, he acted as an advocate for students on campus and served on a faculty committee supporting the cause. He also fought to remove a mandatory retirement rule requiring university faculty members to retire by a certain age, allowing faculty members to continue working and conducting research at the university.

“He was not only a scientist, but a humanist — and engaged in all sorts of human endeavors,” said Jack Kirsch, a campus professor of the graduate school of biochemistry, biophysics and structural biology.

Schachman was an unwavering proponent of bioethics, teaching a graduate student course on the subject and working to make sure faculty were not unjustly punished for data errors sometimes wrongly interpreted as data fabrication. He also acted as an ombudsman who communicated the concerns of researchers to National Institute of Health director Harold Varmus.

Both a teacher and a mentor for his students, Schachman guided the careers of many eminent biochemists, including professor and chair of the Department of Systems Biology at Harvard University, Marc Kirschner.

“You could go to him because he listened, he understood — he just gave sage advice,” Kirsch said. “I think he just cared about young people.”

Schachman was an avid reader, follower of sports and enjoyed the theater.

“He was always interested in something new too — I think that’s what kept him going,” Kirsch said. “His brain was always engaged at the highest level.”

He is survived by his sons Marc and David, his four grandchildren Nikki, Toby, Amy and Matt, and his four great-grandchildren Blair, Cal, Scarlett and Ainsley.

Cassandra Vogel is an assistant news editor. Contact her at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @cass_vogxz.