Former BTI Faculty Member, Karl Maramorosch, Turns 100
Karl Maramorosch, a former BTI scientist, pioneer in insect cell culture and winner of the Wolf Prize in Agriculture, became a centenarian this past month.
The pioneering invertebrate pathologist is known not just for his work on the transmission of plant diseases, but for his knack for recruiting and nurturing talented researchers. He remains a beloved colleague and friend to the many scientists with whom he collaborated, mentored, edited or simply entertained at conferences with his wit and his accordion.
“He was gifted,” said BTI Professor Emeritus Bob Granados, who spent five years working as a junior faculty researcher in his laboratory. Unlike some scientists who become famous for a single “eureka paper,” Maramorosch made a more lasting contribution to his field. “It was his ability and his success in hiring young men and women who became extremely well-known and in some cases superstars in the fields of invertebrate pathology and vector transmission,” said Granados.
Maramorosch began his work with plant viruses at the Brooklyn Botanic Garden in New York in 1946. Though he had completed a master’s degree and most of a doctorate in Europe, he worked as a technician for famed insect pathologist Lindsay Black, studying plant viruses transmitted by leafhoppers. Black encouraged him to finish his Ph.D. at Columbia University and even helped him secure a predoctoral fellowship. The award provided enough income for Maramorosch and his wife to have their first and only child, Lydia Ann. While working with Black, he developed techniques to infect leafhoppers with wound tumor virus using a needle, and to measure the number of viral particles as the pathogen incubated inside the insect.
After graduating from Columbia, Maramorosch accepted a position working independently under plant pathologist Louis Otto Kunkel at Rockefeller University. Kunkel, also a former employee of BTI, was the first scientist hired by the Institute in 1923. At Rockefeller University, Maramorosch demonstrated that aster yellows “virus,” which was later discovered to be a specialized type of bacteria called a phytoplasma, could multiply inside the leafhopper. He also made his first attempts at growing the pathogen in cultured insect cells.
In 1961, Maramorosch moved on to the Boyce Thompson Institute, while it was still located in Yonkers, New York. He continued to develop insect cell culture techniques and studied insect viruses called baculoviruses. He worked with postdoctoral researchers from all around the world, one of the first being Granados, an insect virologist with a freshly minted Ph.D. from Wisconsin.
“That was the genesis of my training in invertebrate cell culture that led to development of High Five cells and the first human cervical cancer vaccine,” said Granados. BTI patented these cells in 1994 and has since successfully licensed the technology to industry.
He also describes Maramorosch as an “ambassador of science,” with a silver tongue and a photographic memory, who could remember faces and conversations from decades before. He could speak nine languages and travelled extensively, bringing together researchers from all over the world to create a truly international lab during his time at BTI.
“I went to his lab because he was working on plant diseases that are transmitted by insects. At the time, Karl was probably the leading scientist in that subject. I wanted to go where the best were, so I ended up with Karl,” he said.
Granados can personally vouch for Maramorosch’s skill in picking associates. Shortly after joining BTI, Maramorosch traveled to Europe to scout for new talent and the director of a Dutch research institute recommended a young woman named Johanna Suykerbuyk. She travelled to Yonkers in 1963 to work as a research assistant. Suykerbuyk met Granados when he joined the lab in 1964, and they were married a year later.
When BTI moved to its current home on the Cornell University campus in Ithaca, Maramorosch and his wife chose to stay close to the city in their Scarsdale home. He accepted a position at Rutgers University as a member of the Waksman Institute of Microbiology and continued his work with insect cell culture.
In 1980, Maramorosch won the Wolf Prize, frequently referred to as the Nobel Prize for agriculture, “for his pioneering and wide-ranging studies on interactions between insects and disease agents in plants.” The Wolf Foundation also recognized his discovery that plant viruses can replicate inside insect hosts and his work on spiroplasmas and mycoplasmas, which, like phytoplasmas, are tiny bacteria that were once thought to be viruses.
He has also won the Jurzykowski Award in Biology, the American Institute of Biological Sciences Award of Distinction, the Waksman Award, the AAAS Campbell Award, and the 2012 Warsaw University for Life Sciences Award of Distinction. Most recently, he travelled to Poland to receive the Honoris Causa Doctorate from his alma mater, the Warsaw University of Life Sciences, in October 2014.
Even after Maramorosch left Rutgers as a professor emeritus, he has continued writing and editing. His name appears on more than 800 research papers and he has edited more than 90 volumes on invertebrate cell culture, plant diseases, viruses and insect vectors.
“Not only did he have a razor sharp mind and knew the right questions to ask and the right people to hire,” said Granados, “but he was an accomplished pianist and was darn good with the accordion.”
Granados recalls attending the founding meeting of the Society for Vertebrate Pathology with Maramorosch at Ohio State University in 1968. During a dinner banquet, the Society’s first president, Ed Steinhouse, had just finished his pre-dinner speech when two doors swung open. Out popped Maramorosch, a mystery man disguised in a dark suit, top hat and glasses. To the delight and surprise of the attendees, he traveled from table to table, playing polish polkas.
Grand pianos also attracted Maramorosch, who would sit and entertain passersby with music at hotels and conferences. His mother was also an accomplished pianist. When the medical school in Lwów, Poland (now Lviv, Ukraine) rejected his application because they had already filled their quota of Jewish students, he spent a year practicing piano at the Music Conservatory. He realized that he “would not become a famous pianist to compete with Arthur Rubinstein, but, at best, a good piano teacher,” he wrote. He chose to enter Warsaw Agriculture University instead. His father, who had also studied agriculture and ran the family farm, was delighted.
Invertebrate pathologists everywhere can breath a sigh of relief that he chose research over medicine or music. Even Maramorosch himself says that luck played a large part in his life. When asked if he could share his secret for a long life, he replied: “Yes of course. It’s very easy: to have good luck. You have to have it and if you do, that is all.”
Maramorosch met his wife, Irene, under serendipitous circumstances. He was on a field trip to a Polish agricultural research station when “across came a very nicely dressed girl with a book in her hand,” he wrote. A classmate introduced them and they married after he completed his degree of agricultural engineer in 1938. After the couple entered the US, Irene almost immediately secured a job at the New York Public Library, despite not being entirely fluent in English. But her facility with seven other languages and natural ability to speedread helped her to advance rapidly, and she worked at the library for three decades. Irene passed away in 2009.
Maramorosch’s good luck served him and Irene well during World War II, helping them to escape the advancing Nazi army in 1939. On Sept. 17, they attempted to escape across the Romanian border, just 14 miles away. But only uniformed military men were allowed to cross the bridge. A Polish major stopped to ask them for directions and agreed to drive them across–even disguising Maramorosch in his overcoat, and claiming that Irene was his wife.
Once they entered Romania, Maramorosch tried his luck at the door of large house on a hill. The woman who answered the door mistook them for her Polish in-laws, and welcomed them warmly into the house. The son, a microbiologist, became a colleague of Maramorosch’s, after escaping Romania 20 years later.
But soon, officials ordered all Polish refugees into camps, and the couple spent the next seven years in different parts of Romania. While in Bucharest, Maramorosch enrolled in a Ph.D. program, but received a visa to travel to Sweden as a “skilled agriculturalist” just weeks before his final exam. In Stockholm, Maramorosch volunteered at the Plant Protection Institute and polished his English before sailing to the U.S.
Maramorosch’s family members were not so lucky. His parents and brother perished in the Holocaust, along with his wife’s parents and sister, and more than 100 close relatives.
These tales from his early life and the following decades of research are being weaved into Maramorosch’s memoir. He has a writing studio behind his daughter’s home in Sherman Oaks, Calif. But finds that writing about his life is far more challenging than a scientific manuscript. “I don’t like it,” he jokes.
He adds that there is one additional distinction he can claim. “If there’s one thing I can brag about; I’m the only one in the whole world,” he said. Maramorosch is the oldest member of the oldest scientific academy in the world. In 1970, he joined the Leopoldina, the National Academy of Germany, originally founded in 1652.
But he may not hold his title for long: another member will turn 100 in March and he will no longer be the only centenarian in the group, assuming he lasts that long, he says.
Though it would be selfish to expect any more from Maramorosch’s life, anyone who has worked with him–or those who simply wish to read his finished memoirs–will wish him continued good health in the years to come.