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Milton Zaitlin, pioneer of plant virology, dies at 89

Milton Zaitlin

Milton Zaitlin, professor emeritus of plant pathology, died Oct. 11, 2016, in Ithaca, New York. He was 89.

Zaitlin, who joined the faculty in 1973, was an influential pioneer of plant virology research. He made important contributions to the study of virus replication and tobacco mosaic virus, a pathogen that infects a wide range of plants in the nightshade family (Solanaceae). He also added to the understanding of virions and viroids, among other areas. As an instructor, he taught courses in plant virology, plant-virus interactions and plant biotechnology.

“Milt’s reputation attracted many postdocs and sabbatical visitors representing a broad cross-section of the international community,” said Peter Palukaitis, an adjunct professor of plant pathology at Cornell, who is also currently a professor of horticultural sciences in the Seoul Women’s University in Seoul, South Korea.

Palukaitis is a former postdoctoral researcher and faculty member in the former Department of Plant Pathology, where he was a colleague of Zaitlin’s.  

“Milt was an excellent mentor and good friend to all, and he maintained long-term relationships with many of those who passed through his lab,” he said

Zaitlin received his bachelor’s degree in plant pathology from the University of California, Berkeley, in 1949 and earned a doctorate in botanical sciences from the University of California, Los Angeles, in 1954. Zaitlin served as a research officer at the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization (CSIRO) in Canberra, Australia (1954-58); an assistant professor of horticulture at the University of Missouri, Columbia (1958-60); and as a professor of agricultural biochemistry at the University of Arizona, Tucson.

During a sabbatical leave in 1966-67, Zaitlin was supported by a Fulbright scholarship and Guggenheim fellowship to work at the CSIRO Division of Plant Industry. Two more sabbaticals took him to the Department of Biochemistry and Biophysics at University of California, Davis, in 1979-80, and at the John Innes Institute in Norwich, U.K., in 1986-87.

Zaitlin authored and co-authored more than 30 review articles, many of which influenced the development of the study of plant pathology. He served twice as an associate editor of the journal Virology (1966-71 and 1982-84), and as editor for plant viruses (1972-81). He was also the first senior editor for virus-plant interactions in the journal Molecular Plant-Microbe Interactions (1987-90). He was a founding member of American Society for Virology and organized the society’s first meeting at Cornell in 1982 and its 10th meeting in 1992.

Zaitlin was elected as a fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (1969) and the American Phytopathological Society (1978), from which he received the APS Award of Distinction (2006).

Zaitlin is survived by his wife of 65 years, Marjorie, four children, six grandchildren and one great-grandchild.

Media Contact

Melissa Osgood