Last month, University of California San Diego reported the passing of a beloved scientist and teacher, Russell F. Doolittle, Emeritus Professor of Molecular Biology.
Doolittle’s work most famously explored the evolution of blood clotting and became a flashpoint for creationists (proponents of intelligent design), who argued that systems like blood clotting could not have evolved through the gradual step-by-step process of natural selection.
As Doolittle made clear on many occasions–but most memorably in a piece he wrote for Boston Review in 1997–the creationists ignored the importance of key factors in the evolutionary process, most notably gene duplication. And, not surprisingly, they misrepresented what Doolittle and his research team discovered.
Kenneth Miller, Professor of Biology at Brown University, highlighted the importance of Doolittle’s work in his first popular book on evolution, Finding Darwin’s God. And although he was traveling, Miller took time out to share some personal correspondence on how helpful Doolittle was when he was writing his book in 1998.
Miller flew to San Diego to ask Doolittle a few questions about the evolution of blood clotting, expecting that Doolittle would not have a great deal of time. But to his astonishment, Doolittle set aside the better part of an entire day to go over his work, answer Miller’s key questions, and to suggest a number of ways in which his findings could be explained in layman’s terms to make sense to his readers.
“If I remember correctly, we spent almost five hours together, an incredible amount of time for a researcher to devote to a total stranger,” Miller wrote to Doolittle’s family. “The kindness and generosity of that encounter has stayed with me ever since. I have never failed to mention my friend, Russ Doolittle, whenever I discuss blood clotting, and I remain grateful to Professor Russell Doolittle to this day.”
Miller’s recollection mirrors those of other of Doolittle’s students and colleagues, as the UCSD tribute makes clear: “One of the amazing aspects of Doolittle’s scientific career was his insistence on being at the bench performing or directing the experiments himself. He sat with his staff for hours at a time double-checking the transcription between the original publication and his growing atlas of amino acid sequences.”
He even traveled with his students to sites across country where they could gather samples for use in the lab.
An avid runner, Doolittle participated in many marathons around the U.S. He was also politically active, at one point, running unsuccessfully as a Democrat for Congress.
Doolittle was 88 years old when he died on October 11th.
“I mourn his loss,” Miller wrote. “But I also regard him as the very epitome of a humane life in science, well-lived.”