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Alumni Profiles - Stanley Falkow

Fighting infection

Job Title: Professor of Microbiology and Immunology at Stanford University School of Medicine

Where did you grow up? Newport, R.I.

Where is home now? Portola Valley, Calif.

Years at UMaine and degrees? 1951–55, B.S. in Bacteriology, Honors

Milestones in your professional career after graduating from UMaine?

Ph.D. Brown University, 1961

Research scientist, Walter Reed Army Institute of Research, 1961–67

Professor of Microbiology, Georgetown University, 1967–72

Professor of Microbiology and Medicine, University of Washington, Seattle, 1972–81

Professor of Microbiology and Immunology and of Medicine, Stanford University, 1981–2010

I was fortunate to have my work recognized, to receive several awards and to be elected to several learned societies. The Lasker Award I received in 2008 meant a great deal to me because it recognized not just my research but also my teaching. I was elected as a Foreign Member of the Royal Society of London in 2007. Fellows since the Society was established in the 17th century sign their names in a leather bound book with a quill pen on parchment. Signing my name in a book that held the signatures of some of the greatest scientists in the world like Newton and Einstein was thrilling.

How did UMaine prepare you for this career?

It provided me with a solid foundation in biology, chemistry and bacteriology. I also profited from undergraduate courses in English and the social sciences. On a personal note, I had a happy, marvelous undergraduate experience.

How did infectious diseases become a focus for you?

I read the book Microbe Hunters by Paul De Kruif when I was 11 years old and was certain I wanted to study microbes and how they caused disease. The reason Maine was so important to me in my career was that the professors I encountered at Orono showed me that my dream might be fulfilled and that microbes were even more interesting than I imagined as a child.

Tell us about the major projects you’ve worked on and the breakthroughs you’ve made.

My early research focused on how microbes became resistant to antibiotics. Later, I began to apply the methods of genetics and molecular biology to the study of bacteria that cause human disease. Over my research career, my students worked on a large number of different microbes, including the typhoid bacillus, plague, whooping cough and, in more recent years, the organism Helicobacter pylori, which causes gastric ulcers and gastric cancer. Breakthrough is not a word I have ever used. We worked hard and some of our work translated into diagnostic tests and were the foundation for vaccines against diarrheal disease, whooping cough and typhoid. We also were able to learn some of the ways H. pylori causes malignant changes in the stomach.

From your perspective, what is most important for the layperson to know about infectious disease and the research focused on it?

Even in our technically advanced world — which has available antibiotics, vaccines and public health measures that eliminated smallpox and dramatically reduced the incidence of many of the common childhood diseases — the leading cause of death in children worldwide is still infectious diseases. Infectious diseases like HIV/AIDS, tuberculosis, malaria and influenza exact a stunning toll in death and misery worldwide. We still urgently need to do fundamental research to control these diseases and, indeed, new infectious diseases like SARS that appear regularly. It is a battle of our wits and the microbes’ determination to survive. They may be the smallest of living things but nonetheless, they’re crafty little devils.

Your lecture is titled “Infectious Diseases Through History.” How has disease shaped the history of the world?

Over and over during recorded history, epidemics have swept the globe and destroyed from a third to half the known world population. Even in recent times, events like the influenza pandemic of 1917–18 and the HIV pandemic that is still evolving have a profound influence on the world economy and, indeed, our security. Germs have won more wars than generals. Human exploration brought not new lands and trade routes, but also virtually destroyed whole civilizations. We sometimes forget what a fragile line we live between life and prosperity, and the potential for a biological calamity from microorganisms that reproduce and evolve with at an astonishing rate.

Why UMaine?

Maine had what I considered the best undergraduate program in bacteriology of any school that I applied to. However, in fairness I should confess that I was not a great student, but I was accepted at Maine promptly. I never understood why. Years later when I received an honorary degree at UMaine, I had occasion to ask a member of the administration why UMaine accepted me so quickly and gambled on a student of such questionable ability. The reply was delivered with a smile and a wink. “Well, you know, in 1951 when you applied, the university was in such financial straits that we accepted any out-of-state students because of the increased tuition fees.” It worked out well for the both of us, I guess.

What kinds of research were you involved in as a UMaine student?

Professor Hitchner, for whom Hitchner Hall was named, expected every undergraduate to perform independent research and to write an honors thesis as a prerequisite for graduation. I worked on antibiotic resistance and, in fact, that work became my first publication in a scientific journal. I eventually published more than 500.

When you were at UMaine, what was your favorite place on campus?

I really loved the laboratory where the Department of Bacteriology and Biochemistry was located. I lived in a fraternity house, TEP. The campus was quite small and the center of activity was the Bookstore.

Most memorable UMaine moment?

Actually, it was my first day on campus, after my first-ever airplane trip from Boston to Bangor, finding my dormitory room and meeting all of the other freshmen. In those days freshmen were expected to wear beanies until the Homecoming football game. I also remember my first snowstorm — not at all what I had experienced in southern Rhode Island. The “no see um” insect attack my first UMaine spring was also memorable.

While in Orono, I spent too much time:

in Bangor and Old Town

Favorite professor (and why)?

E.R. Hitchner, my bacteriology professor, and Marvin C. Myer, a biology professor. They took the time to encourage me to follow my dream. They never failed to give me praise and, equally important, to gently tell me when I was wrong. They were my first mentors and my first professional role models.

Class that nearly did you in? Calculus

If I knew then what I know now, I would have…

Listened more and talked less.

How does UMaine continue to influence your life?

A college education ideally provides you with the intellectual tools you need to begin your life’s work. It is also the place where many people learn to become independent in their ideas. Maine provided me with a wonderful undergraduate education taught by thoughtful, caring people. I often think about my early days at Orono and I have tried to be the same caring professor as the ones I encountered during my years at the University of Maine.

Who is your microbiology/immunology inspiration?

Of course, my first inspiration were the early microbe hunters like Louis Pasteur and Robert Koch who established that microbes — and not evil spirits — were the cause of many of the diseases that affected humanity. More recently, I was asked to write a memoir of my professional life, which I called “The Fortunate Professor.” My dedication was a variation on an old quotation:

I learned much from my parents

I learned even more from my teachers

But I learned the most from my students.

Finally, my wife, Dr. Lucy Tompkins, is also a microbiologist, an infectious diseases physician. She is in many ways my greatest inspiration in both my professional and personal life.

Best advice to microbiology students?

You learn as much, if not more, from an experiment that does not work than one that does. An experiment, after all, is just a question you put to Nature. You have to learn to ask simple questions so you can understand the answer. Creative experiments are almost always elegantly simple. You also need to communicate your ideas to others in a simple fashion. Explain things as if you were telling your grandmother what you do for a living.

If not a professor of microbiology and immunology, what would you be?

I have loved exploring the hidden microscopic universe. I would have also liked to have been an astronomer and explored the larger cosmos. I should also say that my first ambition as a child was to be a pilot. I achieved that goal five years ago when I was 72. Sometimes the things you dream as a child don’t match your expectations when you finally get to do them as an adult, but flying an airplane for me was even better than I imagined as a little boy.

Image Description: Stanley Falkow

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The University of Maine
The University of Maine
Orono, Maine 04469
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