|Professors emeriti Sofia Simmonds and Joseph Fruton endowed the Joseph S. and Sofia S. Fruton Teaching and Research Fund for the History of Science.
In Memoriam: Biochemists Joseph Fruton
and Sofia Simmonds
Biochemists Sofia S. Simmonds and Joseph S. Fruton, a married couple who were
both professors emeriti at Yale, died after short illnesses on July 27 and
29 respectively in New Haven.
Simmonds was 90 and Fruton was 95.
Together, in 1953, they published “General Biochemistry” (John
Wiley & Sons Inc., New York), the first rigorous and comprehensive textbook
in the field. They had been married since 1936 and, as one colleague observed, “they
had a truly life-long love affair.”
Simmonds and Fruton each pursued independent research in biochemistry, and
both were known as excellent teachers for the clarity of their lectures. Their
textbook was translated into Japanese and a number of European languages. Around
the world, their definitive work educated several generations of biochemists,
including many who steered the development of molecular biology by merging
biochemistry with genetics.
In 2005, in addition to having devoted their careers to research and teaching
at Yale, the couple provided a major gift to establish the Joseph S. and Sofia
S. Fruton Teaching and Research Fund for the History of Science at Yale.
Simmonds, known to all by her childhood nickname of “Topsy,” grew
up in New York City. After graduating from Barnard College, she attended Cornell
University in New York City where she received her Ph.D. in 1942 in the laboratory
of Nobel Prize winner Vincent du Vigneaud. Moving to Yale in 1945, she rose
to become professor of biochemistry in 1976, and later, after the department
was reorganized in 1969, professor of molecular biophysics and biochemistry.
Simmonds served for many years as director of undergraduate studies during
a time when many students joined the biology department. In 1988, she served
as associate dean of Yale College.
Her research interest was the metabolism of amino acids and peptides in the
bacteria Escherichia coli. In 1969, Simmonds was awarded the Garvan Medal by
the American Chemical Society, which recognizes the research accomplishments
of outstanding women chemists.
Fruton was born in 1912 in Czestochowa, Poland. His family lived in New York
City during most of World War I, but later returned to Eastern Europe where
they experienced the growing instability and anti-Semitism that marked post-World
War II Europe. In 1923, the family emigrated permanently to the United States,
eventually settling in Brooklyn. Fruton, in his memoir “Eighty Years” (Epikouros
Press, New Haven, 1994), noted that his parents’ decision to move to
the United States saved the three of them from the fate of his grandparents,
all four of whom perished at Treblinka.
At Columbia University, Fruton received his B.A. in chemistry in 1931 and Ph.D.
in biochemistry in 1934. For the next 10 years, he was on the research staff
of the Rockefeller Institute for Medical Research, now Rockefeller University.
In those years, he established his interest in the chemistry of peptides and
the mechanism of proteases, enzymes that break down peptides and proteins.
He made the important discovery that such enzymes have demanding chemical specifities
for their substrates — a pioneering concept at the time.
In 1945, Fruton moved to Yale, where he became a popular teacher and chair
of the Department of Biochemistry. In 1957, he was named the Eugene Higgins
Professor of Biochemistry. He was a major force in efforts to enhance the role
of all the sciences at Yale. Colleagues recall that throughout his tenure as
professor and academic leader, Fruton’s efforts were consistently distinguished
by his encouragement and fairness toward female students and colleagues.
In addition to his biochemical research, teaching and administrative concerns,
Fruton pursued a major scholarly effort in the history of chemistry and biochemistry.
His several historical books — including “Contrasts in Scientific
Style: Research Groups in the Chemical and Biochemical Sciences” (American
Philosophical Society, 1990) and “Proteins, Enzymes, Genes: The Interplay
of Chemistry and Biology” (Yale University Press, 1999) — established
Fruton as a leading historian of science and led to his appointment as professor
of the history of medicine in 1980. Notably, “Proteins, Genes, Enzymes” is
dedicated to the memory of four outstanding, deceased women biochemists.
Fruton was awarded various honors including the Eli Lilly Prize in Biological
Chemistry (1944) and the Dexter Award in the history of chemistry from the
American Chemical Society (1993). He was elected to the National Academy of
Sciences in 1952, to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1953, and
to the American Philosophical Society in 1967.
There are no close relatives of Fruton or Simmonds, as far as is known, and,
as per their wishes, there will be no memorial services.
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In Memoriam: Biochemists Joseph Fruton and Sofia Simmonds
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