Leading scientists associated with biology in Geneva
- Former researchers or students.
- Nobel Prize, Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz Prize, Louis-Jeantet Prize, Japan Prize, Kyoto Prize, Lasker Award, Otto Naegeli Award, National Latsis Prize, Marcel Benoist Award.
- Pioneering women and men. To be noted that women were officially admitted to the University of Geneva since 1873.
Auguste Pyramus de Candolle
Geneva botanist and zoologist, 1778 – 1841
Remembered in the history of botany as a pioneer of natural methods of classification, he was a precursor in plant geography. He studied law at the Geneva Academy, before going to Paris to study medicine. Before defending his thesis on the medicinal properties of plants, he was appointed by Jean-Baptiste Lamarck to revise his Flore française. While in charge of a systematic description of the plant resources of the Napoleonic Empire, the scientist built a theory on the classification of plants. He became professor and director of the botanical garden of Montpellier, before returning to Geneva in 1816 to hold a chair in Natural History (Botany and Zoology) at the Academy. Founder of the botanical garden at the ‘Parc des Bastions’, Augustin Pyramus de Candolle spent the rest of his life describing the plant kingdom in a systematic way, a monumental work detailing some 59’000 plant species, of which 6’350 new ones. A remarkable morphologist and plant physiologist, he provided the basics of plant geography in his Essai élémentaire de géographie botanique. He also embraced plant chemistry, agronomy and pharmacology, while being sensitive to social issues.
Geneva naturalist, physician and politician of German origin, 1817 – 1895
Carl Vogt first studied chemistry in Germany and then medicine at the University of Bern. He then focused on zoology and developmental biology. In 1852, he was appointed to the chair in geology at the Academy of Geneva and to that of zoology twenty years later. Carl Vogt published a number of notable studies on geology, physiology and zoology. Atheist militant, known for its materialistic views and support of Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution, he was in conflict with Geneva’s elite steeped in protestant culture. After obtaining the Swiss citizenship, Carl Vogt played an important role in Geneva’s public affairs, as State and National Member of Parliament, and his influence became notable in the political, scientific and academic fields. In parallel with his teachings in geology, paleontology, zoology and comparative anatomy, he obtained the construction of new buildings for the Academy, of which he was the rector from 1873 to 1876, and campaigned for the adoption of a new law on public education. He led the transformation of the Academy into a bona fide University.
Polish physiologist, 1855 – 1942
Higher education being inaccessible to young women in Russian Poland, she chose to train abroad. She started as a student at the Faculty of Sciences of the University of Geneva (UNIGE) and continued her studies at the University of Paris, before returning to Geneva to do her PhD, in 1889. She was thus the first woman to obtain a doctoral degree in Natural Sciences at this University. She then took up a position at the Laboratory of Physiology at the Solvay Institute in Brussels, then another as lecturer at the Faculty of Sciences of UNIGE, where she taught courses in general physiology. Back in Poland, Micheline Stefanowska taught physiology of the nervous system at the Advanced science courses in Warsaw and ran a high school for girls in Lodz, before continuing her academic career at the University of Poznan, where she was appointed professor in 1923. She was elected to the Polish Academy of Arts and Sciences, the only woman member at that time together with Marie Curie.
Geneva anthropologist, 1867 – 1962
He obtained a doctorate in science at UNIGE in 1899 by submitting the first thesis in anthropology of his Alma mater. Founder of the Geneva Museum of Ethnography in1901 and of the chair in anthropology and prehistory at UNIGE in 1916, Eugène Pittard carried out significant anthropological studies, both on ancient skulls from the Valais region and on living populations of the Balkans. His numerous publications, bold and original, including Les Peuples des Balkans, Les Races et l’histoire – in which he was one of the first to scientifically invalidate the concept of human races – and Histoire des premiers hommes, achieved a tremendous international success in scientific circles, and earned him numerous awards, both in Switzerland and abroad. Director of the Museum of Ethnography, professor, dean and then rector of UNIGE, he developed a real amity for the Gypsies, to whom he devoted numerous writings based on his observations during his stays in Rumania. In 1924, delegated by the League of Nations, he supplied wheat to the Albanian people and funded the Albanian Red Cross. Throughout his life, Eugene Pittard was driven by difference and the interactions between groups of people.
French zoologist and biologist, 1885 – 1963
Precocious and self-taught naturalist, he published his first scientific note when he was 18 years old, under the aegis of a professor in Besançon, before studying medicine in Paris. After obtaining his doctorate in medicine, he completed his thesis in sciences, which was interrupted by four years of war, on the life and the development of Drosophila. Emile Guyénot was appointed to the chair in general zoology at UNIGE in 1918. Appointed to the Institute of Zoology, he succeeded in making a center of experimental biology out of it. He revolutionized the teaching of zoology in Geneva by adapting it to both future physicians and biologists. Eight main directions of research were followed, allowing the students to acquire a polyvalent, theoretical and practical training. These fields included genetics of vertebrates and insects, parasitology, the sexuality of batrachians, endocrinology and regeneration. Laureate of three French academic prizes, including the Longchamp Prize of the Academy of Science of Paris, he also received the Prize of Geneva and the Marcel Benoist Award, in 1950.
Dutch and Geneva endocrinologist, 1897 – 1982
Kitty Ponse obtained her thesis, which focused on the mechanisms of embryonic and post-embryonic development, at UNIGE in 1922. She then explored the mechanisms of sex determination and differentiation in amphibians, and obtained, for the first time, an experimental sexual inversion of a vertebrate. Endowed with an exceptional teacher charisma, she contributed for many years to the practical teaching given at the Institute of Zoology, before being appointed full professor at the chair in experimental endocrinology in 1961. Owing to her multiple studies in most areas of this discipline, Kitty Ponse received many honors, including the Montyon Prize of the Academy of Sciences of Paris, the Allen Richard Prize and the Prize of the Royal Academy of Belgium. She became the first recipient of the Otto Naegeli Award, in 1961, for her scientific research in this field.
Geneva anthropologist, 1905 – 1993
She represents a pioneer case of a successful social advancement of a woman through science in Geneva. As a 17 year old milliner, she joined the Geneva Museum of Ethnography to become the secretary of Eugène Pittard, then director of the Museum. Her intellectual qualities and interest in everything related to human beings prompted him to encourage her to undertake studies of anthropology. However, it was not possible for her to perform them at UNIGE, since she had no high school degree. She enrolled at the University of Grenoble, where she defended her doctoral thesis in prehistoric archeology on the prehistoric populations of the Alps in 1935. She returned to UNIGE and taught as a lecturer between 1941 and 1965. A determined and insatiable researcher, she undertook ethnological investigations worldwide. She was the first woman to become head of the Museum of ethnography, from 1952 to 1967.
Swiss and Italian pharmacologist and physiologist, 1907 – 1992
Daniel Bovet obtained his doctorate in natural sciences in zoology and comparative anatomy at UNIGE in 1929, under the supervision of Emile Guyénot. He then focused his research on therapy for human pathologies during his years at the Pasteur Institute in Paris. He became known for his discovery of the antibacterial properties of sulfonamides in 1935. Daniel Bovet also opened another path, that of allergy treatment, by uncovering the first antihistamine two years later. A fruitful scientific collaboration was established with Filomena Nitti, also a pharmacologist at the Pasteur Institute, whom he married in 1939. He directed the Laboratory of Therapeutic Chemistry of the Pasteur Institute until 1947, then created and directed a similar laboratory at the Istituto Superiore di Sanità in Rome. He found less expensive and reliable alternatives to curare, such as gallamine and succinylcholine, which are widely used in human clinical practice. He was appointed Professor of Pharmacology at the University of Sassari in 1964, then Director of the Laboratory of Psychobiology and Psychopharmacology of the National Research Council in Rome from 1969 to 1971, before becoming Professor of Psychobiology at the University of Rome. He received many prizes and distinctions for his work, including the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1957.
Biologist, biochemist and geneticist from Valais, 1917 – 2003
After studying medicine in Lausanne and Basel, he obtained a doctorate focused on bacterial cytochromes in 1951 in Cambridge. He was also interested in other bacterial particles – known as ribosomes today – and studied their structure and function with Jim Watson at Harvard. He then worked in the laboratory of Jacques Monod at the Pasteur Institute in Paris, where he developed optimal conditions for the synthesis of proteins in vitro, a system that became essential for the elucidation of the genetic code. In 1964, he was appointed professor in Geneva where he founded with Eduard Kellenberger the Institute of Molecular Biology. He attracted many talented young international scientists to carry on research on the structure and function of ribosomes, messenger RNA synthesis and protein synthesis. He made key contributions to develop this Institute into an important center for molecular research in biology. In 1972, he discovered “heat-shock” proteins in Drosophila at Caltech. Alfred Tissières received numerous scientific awards, including the Marcel Benoist Award in 1966, shared with Edouard Kellenberger. The Alfred Tissières Young Investigator Award has been established by the Cell Stress Society International in honor of his support and encouragement of young scientists.
Biophysicist from Bern, 1920 – 2004
Trained as a physicist from ETHZ, he came to UNIGE in 1945 to work on the development of an industrial electron microscope conceived in Switzerland. To demonstrate its utility in biomedical research, he succeeded, with Antoinette Ryter, in developing a method to prepare and to allow the viewing of microorganisms, which has become a standard since. During the 1950s, Eduard Kellenberger, director of the new Biophysics Laboratory, assembled a network of researchers working on the genetics of bacteriophages. This network included Werner Arber, whose work led him to earn the Nobel Prize. The first pictures of the lambda phage electron micrographs also contributed to the reputation of the laboratory. For Eduard Kellenberger, genetic, biochemical and structural approaches were an essential combination for research in molecular biology. The first Institute of Molecular Biology in Switzerland was set up in Geneva in 1964 thanks to his efforts and those of Alfred Tissières. Eduard Kellenberger was awarded the Marcel Benoist Prize in 1966, which he shared with the latter. He then took-up a new challenge that resulted in the creation, with other researchers, of the Biozentrum, an interdisciplinary research institute at the University of Basel.
Swiss and American biochemist, born in 1920
He studied at UNIGE during World War II and earned two science degrees, in biology and chemistry, before obtaining a PhD in organic chemistry. At the age of thirty, he taught the very first course in enzymology of his Alma mater. Edmond Fischer pursued his research in Seattle, in the 1950s. Working closely with Edwin Krebs, he focused on the functioning of an enzyme involved in the metabolism of glucose, glycogen phosphorylase. By studying how hormones activate or deactivate this enzyme, both biochemists discovered a key mechanism: the reversible phosphorylation of proteins. Commonly used in cells to regulate various processes and present in all living organisms, this mechanism serves as a molecular switch to activate or deactivate a large number of enzymes. Edmond Fischer received numerous awards and honors for his work, including the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1992, which he shared with Edwin Krebs. He was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and became member of the American National Academy of Sciences. He received, amongst others, the Werner Medal from the Swiss Chemical Society and the Jaubert Prize from UNIGE. He was also elected member of the British Royal Society.
American geneticist and philanthropist, 1926 – 2018
After obtaining a PhD in biology at UNIGE in 1953, she focused her research on cytogenetics and oncogenic viruses at the Weizmann Institute in Israel. She contributed to develop the first method for the prenatal determination of sex. Mathilde Krim moved to New York in the late 1950s and pursued her research in oncology at Cornell University. With her husband Arthur Krim, a movie mogul and philanthropist, she was actively involved in numerous civil liberties and human rights movements. As from 1962, she continued her career at the Sloan-Kettering Institute for Cancer Research, where she headed the Interferon Laboratory from 1981 to 1985. She then became a professor at Columbia University’s School of Public Health. Mathilde Krim founded the American Foundation for AIDS Research (AmFAR) with Elizabeth Taylor in 1985 to raise funds for AIDS research. She has received 16 doctorates honoris causa as well as numerous other honors and distinctions. In 2000, she was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest civilian honor in the United States, for her commitment to AIDS research, and the Award for Greatest Public Service Benefiting the Disadvantaged, an award given out annually by Jefferson Awards.
Microbiologist and geneticist from Aargau, born in 1929
He studied chemistry and physics at ETHZ, and became an assistant in the laboratory of Eduard Kellenberger, who managed the electron microscope of UNIGE. He was interested in the physiology and genetics of bacteriophage viruses, a little-known field at that time. His doctorate, obtained in 1958, focused on the study of defective mutant lambda prophages. Werner Arber carried on his research on phage genetics in California. He consolidated his experience by fruitful discussions with experts of this field at the Universities of Berkeley, Stanford and MIT, before returning to Geneva, at the Institute of Physics. Promoted professor, he taught molecular genetics from 1965. After a year at the University of Berkeley, Werner Arber carried on his work at the Biozentrum in Basel in 1971. One aspect of his studies focused on the action of protective enzymes present in virus-infected bacteria and which cut viral DNA into pieces at specific locations: the restriction enzymes. In 1978, he received the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine with Hamilton Smith and Daniel Nathans for the discovery and applications of these enzymes, which allowed the development of recombinant DNA technology, a revolution in the field of genetics. Werner Arber became a member of the Pontifical Academy of Sciences in 1981 and was appointed as its head by Pope Benedict XVI in 2011.
American biochemist and molecular biologist, born in 1938
Starting with a degree in biochemistry, he completed a PhD in biophysics on DNA replication, a hitherto virtually unexplored field, at Harvard in 1966. He then worked at UNIGE with Richard Epstein and purified a key protein for the replication and recombination of T4 phage DNA. The years spent thereafter at the universities of Princeton and California also contributed to the productive career of Bruce Alberts in biochemistry and molecular biology. He is also known as one of the authors of the famous Molecular Biology of the Cell, the best-selling university textbook in the field. Highly involved in improving science education, he took advantage of his position as president of the American National Academy of Sciences to develop teaching standards that have been implemented in school systems nationwide. Chief Editor of the journal Science from 2009 to 2013, he was also sent to Pakistan and Indonesia as a scientific ambassador of the United States. He received the 2014 National Medal of Science from President Barack Obama. Bruce Alberts has won numerous awards, including 16 honorary doctorates. He is on the scientific advisory board of more than 25 non-profit organizations.
Biochemist and molecular biologist from Schaffhausen, born in 1940
After completing his studies in physics at ETHZ, he obtained his doctorate in the laboratory of Eduard Kellenberger at UNIGE in 1969. His research on the structure of chromosomes led him to Cambridge, then to Caltech and Princeton. He came back to UNIGE in 1980, where he was promoted full professor at the Departments of Biochemistry and of Molecular Biology. Ulrich Laemmli made a crucial contribution to a method for separating proteins by electrophoresis. The publication describing this method, used in most research labs, is among the most cited articles of all times. Ulrich Laemmli is responsible for numerous discoveries on the structural organization of nuclei and chromatin within the cell. By combining analyses by electron microscopy with biochemical analyses, he showed that DNA is organized into filamentous loops – the “Laemmli loops” – attached to a frame of proteins. He also unveiled the dynamic equilibriums within this scaffold, which allows an organization into separate functional areas. These discoveries have profoundly changed our view of the structure of chromosomes. Ulrich Laemmli was awarded the Marcel Benoist Prize in 1988 and the Louis-Jeantet Prize for Medicine in 1996.
Biophysicist from Vaud, born in 1942
After completing his studies in physics at EPFL, he obtained a Certificate of Molecular Biology at the Institute of Molecular Biology in Geneva, in 1969, and began to study electron microscopy of DNA. He completed his thesis in biophysics in 1973 at UNIGE and the University of Basel as a student of Eduard Kellenberger. Jacques Dubochet worked at the European Molecular Biology Laboratory in Heidelberg and was then appointed professor at the University of Lausanne, in 1987. During his career, he developed technologies used to image individual biological structures such as virus particles. To this end, he figured out how to cool water so quickly that crystals would not form (water vitrification). However, when he first submitted his discovery for publication, it was rejected, as the publishers did not believe water could be manipulated this way. In 2017, he won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry with Joachim Frank and Richard Henderson for developing cryo-electron microscopy to visualize proteins and other biological molecules at the atomic level, in their natural configuration. Jacques Dubochet is also known for his remarkable sense of humor, as illustrated by his curriculum vitae.
Molecular biologist from Solothurn, born in 1947
After obtaining his doctorate in biology at the University of Bern, he spent three years at the Fox Chase Cancer Center in Pennsylvania studying the maturation process of messenger RNA. He returned to Switzerland in 1978 as a group leader at ISREC in Lausanne. The work he did on the expression of tissue-specific genes led to a key discovery: the use of alternative promoters and splicing. Ueli Schibler was appointed professor at the Department of Molecular Biology at UNIGE in 1984. His group succeeded in developing a biochemical system in vitro to identify certain transcription factors. They found out that the expression of one of them, DBP, is regulated according to the time of the day and depends on a biological rhythm. The existence of a central clock in the brain, regulated by the alternation of day and night, and governing circadian rhythms was already known. However, his team discovered that circadian clocks exist in virtually every cell of our body and revealed the mechanisms that regulate them. Ueli Schibler has been awarded many honors, including the Louis-Jeantet Prize, the Otto Naegeli Award, the Friedrich Miescher Prize, the Cloëtta Prize and the Aschoff-Honma Prize.
Uruguayan biochemist and molecular biologist, 1959 – 2018
She left Uruguay at the age of 17 to pursue her undergraduate studies in biochemistry at UNIGE. She obtained a PhD in molecular biology in 1989, for work on the structural organization of DNA performed under the guidance of Ulrich Laemmli. During her postdoc at EMBL in Heidelberg, Elisa Izaurralde made seminal contributions towards our understanding of how mRNA is exported from the cell nucleus to the cytoplasm. She returned to the Department of Molecular Biology of UNIGE in 1996 as a Senior Lecturer, focusing on key mRNA export factors, before returning to EMBL in 1999, where she extended this line of research together with Elena Conti. While Elisa Izaurralde concentrated on functional aspects of RNA transport, Elena Conti studied the same topic using X-ray structure analysis. Both researchers were awarded the Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz Prize for this joint work in 2008. Appointed Director of the Department of Biochemistry at the Max Planck Institute for Developmental Biology in Tübingen, in 2005, she shifted her research toward the molecular mechanisms that enable micro RNAs and specific RNA binding proteins to selectively silence mRNA molecules. Elisa Izaurralde also received the Ernst Jung Prize for Medicine and the Friedrich Miescher Award.
Tribute from our Department of Molecular Biology