A large wooden conference table stood beneath an enormous, mounted moose head in the center of the lab of renowned geneticist Richard “Dick” C. Lewontin. Many considered it nearly the beating heart of the lab, which took up the entire third floor of Harvard’s Museum of Comparative Zoology. Here students, postdocs, and visiting scientists gathered to dissect and debate an eclectic set of topics, from population genetics and ethics to politics and history.
“The table was the center of action. This was where the arguments were had,” said Andrew Berry, a Harvard lecturer in evolutionary biology. “His lab was the single most intellectually vibrant place in the universe because it was set up for interaction, drawing in all sorts of really smart, interesting people, often with different perspectives. It implicitly created an amazing sense of community.”
According to colleagues, friends, and former students of Lewontin, who died on July 4 in Cambridge at 92, this was the kind of environment in which the population geneticist and Renaissance man thrived. The space he created was not unlike himself, whip-smart, curious, and tough-minded yet warm and welcoming, capable of dealing out penetrating critiques during debates, but so engaging and magnetic that people, especially those passionate about all things science, gravitated toward him.
“It was a bit of a paradox: He was intimidating and brilliant and incisive, but he was also incredibly charismatic and loyal to his people,” said Berry, who served as a postdoctoral researcher in Lewontin’s lab in the 1990s. “He was truly a fantastic mentor, and he really went to bat for his people in a very Lewontin kind of way.”
A prime example was Lewontin’s refusal to put his name on scientific papers coming out of his lab if he contributed ideas but did none of the work, colleagues said. He also gave a nice corner office with large windows to the individual responsible for what was considered the least glamorous job in the lab — refreshing the food for the thousands of fruit fly larvae.
“It’s a big, dirty, messy, smelly job,” Berry recalled. “Lewontin said: ‘This is the worst job in the lab, so the person doing that should have the best space in the lab.’”