There are some names that all immunologists know: Pasteur, Metchnikoff, Milstein, Tonegawa and Janeway. They represent a brilliant breakthrough, development of a new technology, or a new way of thinking. To many, Herzenberg is synonymous with fluorescence-activated cell sorting (FACS), but it represents so much more. Run by husband and wife, Leonard (Len) A. Herzenberg and Leonore (Lee) A. Herzenberg, the Herzenberg lab has changed the way we do immunology; making it possible to identify and sort cells based on cell size, viability and cell surface markers. Furthermore, “hybridomas”, and B1 versus B2 classification of B cells exemplify some of the many other pivotal contributions from the Herzenberg lab. On Sunday October 27, 2013 at the age of 81, Len passed away, leaving behind a legacy of mentorship, collaboration and innovation.
Born and raised in New York, Len began his scientific career by completing his Bachelor’s degree at Brooklyn College, specializing in Biology and Chemistry. It was here that he met Lee, thus beginning their life as a scientific dynamic-duo.
Receiving one of the first National Science Foundation fellowships in 1952, Len moved to the California Institute of Technology to complete his PhD. Although Lee wasn’t considered an official student, she was the first woman allowed to audit the biology graduate classes at Caltech, and was given her grades in letters, instead of an official transcript. This became essential in Len’s fight to have Lee recognized as being an equal scientist (despite Lee not even officially finishing a BSc). In 1955, having just finished his PhD, Len was offered a postdoctoral position at the Pasteur Institute working with Nobel laureate Dr. Jacques Monod. For two years, Len and Lee worked in Paris, where they planned on staying until Len was drafted into the United States Army. Len chose to “carry a pipette” for his country and worked for the National Institute of Health (NIH) in Bethesda, Maryland. Working under Dr. Harry Eagle, Len aimed to define the minimum broth nutrients required to grow and clone cells. This work would later enable him to further develop monoclonal antibody production in culture using hybridomas; just another one of his critical contributions that have changed the way immunological research is carried out.How is it going to change the way we think?Len and Lee were just settling into a comfortable life at the NIH, when Dr. Joshua Lederberg reached out and offered Len a position in the newly formed genetics department at Stanford’s medical school. Since 1959, Stanford has been home to the Herzenberg lab, and has attracted some of the most talented scientists of the century. One of those scientists was our own former chair, Dr. Michael Julius. Julius describes the Herzenberg lab as “the best run lab”, a superb environment full of superb research associates. Julius insists that in the Herzenberg lab, the question behind the experiment was of utmost importance: how is it going to change the way we think? This was reflected in the fundamentals that led to the development of flow cytometry.
Len, who by his own accord had terrible vision, knew that identifying cells via microscopy was not enough. He knew that there must be a way to quantify and phenotype cells based on cell surface markers, and that by identifying the cells, they could be isolated and further analyzed as a homogenous population. As such, the fluorescence-activated cell sorter was designed as a technology to enable researchers to ask more questions and to study rare populations of cells that were not previously attainable. Len knew that this technology needed to be shared in order to advance scientific research, and brought in Becton Dickinson (BD) to push FACS into the mainstream. Sharing discoveries and new technology was of paramount importance to the Herzenbergs; Len felt that since he was funded by government grants, the technology belonged to the tax-paying people. Len even asked the co-creators of FACS to sign back the royalties from FACS to the Herzenberg lab to further the research. The goal was not to make money; it was to improve scientific research. FACS technology was a tool used to answer questions, and to generate more questions; ultimately, the goal was and will always be, to advance our understanding.
Len was an immunology superhero, a magnificent mind, a creative innovator, and a superb mentor. Immunology and medical research would not be the same without his discoveries. So the next time you’re running flow samples at 2 am, you can thank Len that you have the technology to find and analyze that tiny population of cells that you’ve devoted your PhD to.
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