‘Intellectually fearless’: Former UC Berkeley professor emeritus, cancer cell biologist Harry Rubin dies at 93

Jane Scherr/Courtesy

UC Berkeley professor emeritus of molecular and cell biology Harry Rubin, who was a pioneer in conducting cancer cell biology research, died Feb. 2 at the age of 93.

His investigation of the process of normal cells becoming cancer cells, also known as transformation, began in the 1950s, according to a campus press release. At a time when many labs used tumor viruses to comprehend transformation, Rubin worked with the Rous sarcoma virus, or RSV, which causes cancer in chickens, culminating in him becoming a faculty member at UC Berkeley’s Virus Laboratory.

“What defined Harry Rubin was his full-throated, fullbodied willingness to confront life, in all its problems and glories,” said Rubin’s son Andy Rubin in a eulogy. “He fought the fights that he felt needed fighting. And then he backed off when it became appropriate.”

Rubin attended Cornell University as an undergraduate student and participated in a postdoctoral fellowship at UC Berkeley. He then transferred to the California Institute of Technology, where he was in charge of a lab, despite having minimal experience as a laboratory biologist, according to his son. Charged by his “resourceful” and “persuasive” capabilities, Rubin convinced embryology graduate student Howard Temin to help him discover more about RSV.

The two discovered what, to Andy Rubin’s knowledge, was the first presentation of virally induced neoplastic transformation cells in petri dishes, which led to Rubin’s scientific renown.

Rubin received the Lasker Award, a prestigious recognition in the medical field, for his work on RSV in 1964.

In the last 20 years of Rubin’s life, he precisely mapped out the development of spontaneous neoplastic transformation, or the gradual development of cancer characteristics. Rubin regarded this as his greatest achievement, according to his son. 

“I knew him as an intrepid and honest scientist who followed the dictates of the cells, he listened to the cells,” Andy Rubin said. “He wasn’t trying to impose himself on them, and they led him in interesting directions.”

Paralleling his passion for cell biology, Rubin was also a devoted Orthodox Jew interested in Jewish philosophy.

For multiple decades, Rubin taught a Jewish medical ethics class on campus and organized a group at Congregation Beth Israel in Berkeley that studied the writings of a Jewish philosopher for more than 13 years, said Rabbi Yonatan Cohen in an email.

“His dual passions, science and Judaism, always led him towards the infinite,” Cohen said in the email. “His life is a model of commitment to a higher truth and high ethical standards.”

Beyond his scientific ventures, Rubin also took part in student activism. During the 1960s, Rubin was involved in the campus anti-Vietnam War movement, and various forms of activism became a part of his life.

Andy Rubin remarked in his eulogy that Rubin had learned the language of cells but was also an “intellectually fearless” man that loved his family and Jewish tradition.

“I know that for the rest of my life, any time I have a serious question, be it scientific or Judaic or historical or personal, I will channel Harry for his insights,” Andy Rubin said in the eulogy.

Contact Maxine Mouly at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @moulymaxine.