Sunday, August 2, 2015

Honoring the Memory of Another "Microbial Hero": the Late, Great Ed Leadbetter.

The poet Rilke wrote that "Death is large" and it remains a sad truism.  One seldom notices the impact of a person until they are no longer present.  As I grow older, like most of us, I have begun to lose people who are important to me.  If the poem "Calmly We Walk Through This April's Day" by Delmore Schwartz states "Time is the fire in which we burn," it also points out that "Time is the library in which we learn."

To that end, let me honor the memory of the unforgettable microbiologist and mentor Dr. Edward Leadbetter. There is little point in my writing a short biography of Ed.  His son, Jared Leadbetter (also a microbiologist!), wrote a wonderful and moving memory of his father at the link above.

Today, in Woods Hole, Ed's friends and family are remembering his life with laughter and appreciation.

My connection with Ed is not that of a son, a graduate student, or a postdoctoral scholar.  When I left the biotech industry and tried to return to academia, I knew that I loved microbiology.  In particular, I adored "unusual" or "undomesticated" microbes.  I always have, even from the time I was a boy and first streaked out a plate of bioluminescent bacteria.  So as a new tenure track assistant professor at Occidental College in Los Angeles in 1995, I looked for ways to capitalize on my abundant enthusiasm for Matters Microbial™.

I read about the Microbial Diversity summer course, held at the Marine Biological Laboratories in Woods Hole, Massachusetts (notice the current co-director of the course, by the way!).  As an older applicant, I didn't think I had much of a chance of being accepted. Apply I did (because if I did not apply, I was assured of not being accepted!).  Wonder of wonders, I was accepted.

The Microbial Diversity course changed my life as an academic. I wish I could put those words in letters of microbial fire (similar to what William Blake claimed to see as he made his engravings). What I learned and saw in that course is part of my daily life in the lab.  

My family would argue it is part of my daily life in general, I suspect.

The late Abigail Salyers was one of my instructors for that life-changing course.  Ed Leadbetter was the other.  Here was my Microbial Diversity course group photograph in 1996 (I am second from the right in the back row, while Ed is fourth from the right).

As I have mentioned in my earlier blog post, Abigail was very influential in my life. So was Ed. Ed lacked the, um, flamboyance of Abigail the investigator of colon-inhabitating microbes---but Ed knew seemingly everything about microbes.  That love of microbial diversity really struck a chord with me.  Ed's focus and philosophy turned out not to be surprising; he had taken the first incarnation of the Microbial Diversity course from C.B. van Niel himself.  You see,  C.B. van Niel is the "father" of microbial diversity.

I honestly felt that the American Society of Microbiology ought to have followed Ed Leadbetter around with a microphone and recording equipment and just let him talk.  I cannot think of a single exchange with Ed where I did not learn something new and interesting about microbiology.  He would just matter of factly tell me things that I had never heard or read before.

For example, I had a protocol for measuring the amount of tryptophan in a sample by using a cell free supernatant of a culture of Chromobacterium violaeum.  The Chromobacterium makes enzymes that convert colorless tryptophan into purple violacein, easily detected spectrophotometrically.  Wonderful student project, right?  Except I had trouble getting it to work in student hands. When I asked Ed about it, he calmly agreed and told me that "lab strains" of Chromobacterium appeared to lose the ability to have active enzymes in their supernatant!  He reminded me again that "domesticating" microbes often led to changes in phenotype, just as Beijerinck and others had reported in the early days of microbiology!  This idea has seldom been far from my thinking about microbiology; Ed often told our class that microbes were living things, not reagents, and had their own evolutionary agenda.

As with most Matters Microbial™, the years have only shown that Ed Leadbetter was right.  If Barbara McClintock had a "feeling for the organism" about maize, why, Ed had such a instinctive gestalt for the microbial world.

I once asked Ed about how to choose the right kind of textbook for teaching my single microbiology course.  His answer was pure Ed: "Three.  Two for you, and one for the students."  

And he was right.

Not only was Ed a living encyclopedia of microbiological wonders, he was irreverent and quietly funny.  I well remember a particular time at the general meeting of the American Society for Microbiology some years ago.  We were having a cup of coffee, chatting, and a very famous microbiologist brushed past us self-importantly.  Ed rolled his eyes and told me tales that would curl your hair.  You see, Ed didn't care where you went to school or what kind of position you held.  He cared about microbiology, and microbiologists.

After the Microbial Diversity course, Ed stayed in touch with me via e-mail.  I have dozens and dozens of e-mails from him, asking if I had seen a particular article.  Or had I thought about a new approach for my research that he had been reading about? 

And when I was denied tenure at Occidental College, Ed (like Abigail) was a rock.  As I live and breathe, I can never express enough thankfulness for that support.  Many, many people treated me poorly, or would not speak to me.  Ed Leadbetter acted exactly the same toward me, and when I was looking for new jobs, he had, um, colorful private opinions about each.  I trusted his assessments, of course, and had reason to do so.  

In fact, Ed invited me to serve on a PhD committee with him while he was at Woods Hole!  I suspect he knew I needed to feel like a professional, and his strategy worked well.  Ed would take me to lunch, and sit in committee meetings with pretty influential microbiologists---with me right there too, treated as an equal. Since I teach at an undergraduate institution, I do not have PhD students. So it was a wonderful thing to experience, and a kind thing for him to have done.

Even as Ed experienced health difficulties, he stayed in touch.  I adored getting his e-mails and reading his opinions on Matters Microbial™.  In fact, in the year before he passed away, Ed wrote to me to ask for a variety of tree leaves from our campus in Tacoma.  He was trying to look for patterns among fungi to be found on those leaves, and in typical Ed Leadbetter fashion, sent me a report on the "tree leaf fungi" on our campus.

This is how I will always see Ed Leadbetter in my memory.

The photograph is from his D.C. White Research and Mentoring Award at the General Meeting at ASM in 2014.  I was honored to have been asked to write a letter in support of Ed's receiving this prestigious award; having anything at all to do with that process is something that gives me true pride.  Ed Leadbetter is just that important to so many people, of course including myself. It was so impressive to see the myriad of people at his talk, and observe the affection and respect he received.  Ed was deeply moved by the award, as was the audience.

Over the years, I have discussed having Microbial Heroes™.  And let's face it, Ed Leadbetter must needs be a very bright star in that particular microbial firmament.  My talented and brilliant wife Dr. Jennifer Quinn made me a "shrinky dink" of Ed Leadbetter here.  It sits on my office shelf.  I'm certain Ed would have a rude response to my having it, but I don't care:  I thought the world of him, and miss him.

My wife and I also enjoy collaborating on "portraits made with living light"---that is, painting on nutrient media with bioluminescent bacteria, then taking photographs in the dark.  Here is the one we made of Ed Leadbetter.

But that wasn't enough for me.  I asked my artist friend Kaitlin Reiss to make a "microbial portrait" of Ed, and she did a fine, fine job.  Ed was all about the microbes, after all.

Kaitlin is also working on a similar portrait of Abigail Salyers.  I will get them framed above my computer.  

Ed Leadbetter led a life that mattered, and in so many ways, to so many people.  He certainly had a very large influence indeed on my own life.

Though I could not be at his memorial today in Woods Hole, I can promise Ed's friends and family that he is never far from my thoughts, and informs my classroom and laboratory every single day. 

I miss you, Ed.   Thanks for all you taught me.


  1. Thank you for the kind words, Mark.

    1. Oh, I remember you! I think I have a photo of you holding my son when he was newborn. Your grandfather meant a great deal to me, and it was a privilege to have known him. Best wishes, MM

  2. Hi there, I love the microbe portrait by Kaitlin, and would love to ask her to do a similar one for me/my microbe home page, but couldn't find any contact info on her home page. Is there any way you could send me her email or give her mine? (which I hope you can access when I post this comment..)



I am happy to hear your comments and suggestions. I hope to avoid spammage. We shall see how that works out!