Cornell microbial geneticist Stanley Zahler dies at 89

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Melissa Osgood

Professor Emeritus Stanley Zahler, whose work during his 35-year Cornell career left a lasting imprint on the teaching of microbial genetics at the university, died April 26 in California. He was 89 years old.

Zahler joined Cornell in 1959 as an assistant professor of microbiology. When that section dissolved in 1972, he spent his career in genetics and development, which eventually merged with molecular biology to form the current Department of Molecular Biology and Genetics.

An expert in bacterial genetics with implications for biotechnology and human health, Zahler’s influence at Cornell extended beyond his field. He co-founded the Biology and Society major, a groundbreaking, co-disciplinary effort that merged biological science with perspectives from the social sciences and humanities. He held numerous leadership positions, including associate director of the Division of Biological Sciences and chair of the Genetics and Development Section from 1990 until his retirement in 1994.

As a geneticist, Zahler primarily studied myxobacteria and Bacillus subtilis. The latter organism serves as a model for gram-positive bacteria, such as the pathogens Streptococcus, Staphylococcus and Listeria. Zahler explored the mechanisms and effects of gene exchange in the bacteria, with findings that had implications for understanding the spread of antibiotic resistance genes.

Zahler’s extensive knowledge of Bacillus genetics and his vast collection of stains made him a sought-after expert when the organism became a major source of secreted enzymes used by biotechnology companies, according to Steve Zinder, professor of microbiology.

Strains isolated by Zahler while at Cornell are still used in the lab of professor and department chair John Helmann.

Just as notable as his qualities as a researcher and teacher, however, was his nature as a person.

“Stan was one of the most erudite people I’ve ever met, not just in science, but in all fields,” Zinder said. “He was a gentle person who could find humor in scientific quandaries.”

Generations of Cornell undergraduate students learned the fundamentals of bacterial genetics in the course he taught for over 30 years. In 2008, former undergraduate student Andrew Goldstein ’69 and his spouse, M. Jean Love Goldstein ’70, endowed a display case at Mann Library in Zahler’s honor.

He earned his bachelor’s degree at New York University in 1948, and master’s and doctorate at the University of Chicago. He completed his postdoctoral work at the U.S. Public Health Service in Urbana, Illinois, from 1952-54. He took a position as assistant professor at the University Washington, Seattle, before coming to Cornell. He is survived by his wife, Jan, M.S. ’78, children Kathy ’76, Diane ’79 and Peter ’82, and grandchildren Ben Sicker, Olivia Lutwak ‘18 and Gabe Zahler.

Matt Hayes is managing editor and social media manager for the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences.

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