Trailblazing microbiologist Stanley Falkow dies at Portola Valley home


Stanley Falkow, a resident of Portola Valley, professor emeritus in microbiology and immunology at the Stanford University medical school, and a pioneer in determining how bacteria cause human disease and develop resistance to antibiotics, died May 5. He was 84.

He died at home in the company of his wife, Dr. Lucy Tompkins, who is also a Stanford medical school professor and physician. A friend and a longtime assistant were also present, according to a May 10 statement from Stanford.

Falkow was "a giant in the field of microbiology," medical school science writer Krista Conger said in the statement. Considered to be the founder of his field of study, Falkow discovered that bacterial species swapped their disease-causing capabilities and their resistance to antibiotics "like trading cards," the statement said.

Falkow participated in the Food and Drug Administration's investigation into the routine use of antibiotics in animal feed. With his understanding of the ease with which antibiotic resistance was transferable between bacterial species, Falkow became a strong advocate against the use of treated feed, the statement said.

As a consequence of his collaboration with the government, including at the local level, Falkow came to the conclusion that, while he did not enjoy testifying, "it is also a scientist's responsibility to serve the public's interest," the Stanford statement said.

Falkow grew up in Albany, New York, and Newport, Rhode Island. His interest in microbiology began in a public library with the book "Microbe Hunters," by Paul de Kruif, published in 1926 by Harvest Books. He acquired his first microscope at age 11, and after seeing bacteria swimming in spoiled milk, he decided on a career as a bacteriologist, the statement said.

While enrolled at the University of Maine, it was as a summer intern in a hospital laboratory in Newport that Falkow "first began to understand the delicate dance between pathogenic bacteria and their human hosts," the statement said. That dance came to occupy him for the rest of his life, and it became an enthusiasm that he shared with his students.

Falkow completed graduate school and postdoctoral studies at Brown University and the Walter Reed Army Institute of Research. He came to love fly fishing after taking it up in an attempt to alleviate agoraphobia and anxiety, problems about which he "spoke freely." He described his scientific and personal lives as being in a kind of cocoon, "always half-afraid and ready at a moment's notice to run," the statement said.

It was at Georgetown University that Falkow discovered his love for teaching and mentoring. A mentorship, he wrote in a retrospective, "cannot be a friendship in the usual sense of the word nor can it be paternalistic. ... It requires absolute honesty and trust."

Dr. Manuel R. Amieva, a physician and associate professor at Stanford medical school, described Falkow in the statement as "incredibly gifted in his ability to bring out the best in people. I try to think about his generosity to me and emulate that with my students."

"I never thought bacteria were that interesting until I heard all the things Stanley told me they could do," Amieva recalled. "He was so charismatic and told all these stories about being on the side of the microbes. Some people say that Stanley himself was infectious his personality and humor could hook you and draw you in."

"Bacteria have lost a good friend," Dr. Marshal Bloom, a senior investigator of tick-borne viruses at Rocky Mountain Laboratories in Hamilton, Montana, said in the statement. "The reach of his scientific legacy is almost incalculable, and his loss will be felt around the world," Bloom said.

Falkow is survived by his wife; daughters Jill Brooks and Lynn Short; stepson Christopher Tompkins; sister Jeanette Andriesse; and four grandchildren. A celebration of his life is being planned for later in May.

Click here for the full statement from the medical school.

Dave Boyce

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