Microbe Man

Photo: Linda A. Cicero/Stanford News Service

Sometimes described as the Louis Pasteur of our age, and the founder of the field of molecular bacterial pathogenesis, Stanley Falkow spent his life exploring the organisms that have evolved symbiotically with humans and how they cause disease. 

Stanley Falkow, who came to Stanford as a professor of microbiology and immunology in 1981 and trained some of the most influential figures in the field, died on May 5 in Portola Valley. He was 84.

He was born in Albany, N.Y. He bought his first microscope at 11 and became captivated by the teeming activity he witnessed on a slide of curdling milk. He attended the University of Maine, choosing it over others because it had a department of bacteriology. He spent his early career at Walter Reed Army Institute and then went on to teach at Georgetown University and the University of Washington.

His work on resistance to antibiotics first brought him to attention in the 1970s, and his discoveries helped transform the way modern medicine investigates infectious illness. He had an intuitive sense of the world of the host and the pathogen, and the insight that pathogenicity was not, as he put it, a “vicious throwback” but an adaptation for survival. He worked on some of the first experiments with recombinant DNA, identifying the extra DNA chromosomes known as plasmids, which could break off and transfer resistance from one microbial cell to another. In 2008, Falkow won the Lasker-Koshland award for his lifetime achievement in medical science.

He became a great teacher despite having crippling social anxiety. Arriving sweating and panicked to give an early lecture on enteric disease, he chanced upon a stool that happened to be onstage, and, in an unintentional pun, intoned, “If you want to talk about enteric bacteria, as a physician you have to start with the stool.” He was greeted with roars of laughter from the students. He said that the hilarity helped him feel more at ease, so he became known for starting classes with a blizzard of one-liners. 

Falkow is survived by his wife, Lucy Stuart Tompkins, ’62, a professor of medicine and of microbiology and immunology at Stanford; his daughters, Lynn Brooks and Jill Short; a stepson; four grandchildren; and a sister.