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May 9, 2018

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In Memoriam

Stanley Falkow, PhD, FIDSA, passed away on Saturday, May 5, 2018 at his home in Portola Valley, California.

Falkow was considered a founder of the modern field of bacterial pathogenesis. His career began before the discovery of DNA’s structure and he was instrumental in developing the first NIH guidelines for DNA recombination. One of Falkow's groundbreaking discoveries was that plasmids can carry a single gene that renders bacteria resistant to antibiotics, making him one of the first to predict the spread of antibiotic resistance. Aware of the implications of this threat, he urged the Food and Drug Administration in the late 1970s to remove antibiotics from animal feed.

"Stanley shaped the field of infectious diseases, the study of pathogenesis, and all of those of us lucky enough to spend time with him, in ways that have already, and will continue to last for generations. He understood infectious diseases better than anyone I have known, and always felt more comfortable with the microbial world than he did with macroscopic life. He was generous, like all mutualistic microbes, and freely offered his ideas, insight, support, and mentorship to any and all. I will miss him greatly,” said David Relman, MD, FIDSA, Past President of IDSA.

Falkow studied a variety of bugs, from diarrhea-causing E. coli and Salmonella to the bacteria that cause whooping cough and bubonic plague. In the 1970s, his research demonstrated that genes from disease-causing bacteria could convert benign bacteria into harmful ones and showed that a life-threatening diarrhea prevalent in many developing countries is caused by a sub-type of E. coli.

His interest in the field was sparked at age 11 when he discovered Paul de Kruif's Microbe Hunters at his local library. Captivated by the stories of Louis Pasteur, Robert Koch and others who first showed that microbes caused disease, he decided to someday become a bacteriologist.

He received his B.S. degree from the University of Maine, and his Ph.D. from Brown University. Following his graduate studies, Dr. Falkow became a staff member at the Walter Reed Army Institute of Research in the Department of Bacterial Immunology where he eventually became assistant chief of the department. His work in the 1960s focused on the genetic mechanisms that enable populations of bacteria to become resistant to antibiotics. 

In 1966, he joined Georgetown University School of Medicine as a professor of microbiology. He then became a member of the faculty of the Department of Microbiology and Immunology at the University of Washington School of Medicine where he described how meningitis and gonorrhea organisms acquire plasmids to become resistant to penicillin and other antibiotics. 

He moved on to the Stanford University School of Medicine as a professor of microbiology and immunology, becoming Chair of the Department of Medical Microbiology in 1981. It was here that he became an early proponent of studying how bacteria interact with human and animal cells, now known as cellular microbiology. He used the latest technology to study which genes were turned on and off in both bacteria and their hosts.

Falkow was the recipient of several IDSA honors including, the Oswald Avery Award in 1979. Society Citation Award in 2004 and the Walter E. Stamm Mentor Award in 2007. In 2007 he was elected to the United Kingdom's Royal Society, and one year later received the prestigious Lasker-Koshland Award for Special Achievement in Medical Science—widely known as the "American Nobel." He was awarded the National Medal of Science in 2016 during a ceremony at the White House.

Falkow was an avid pilot and faithful dog-lover. IDSA extends its heartfelt wishes to his wife, fellow IDSA-member, Lucy Tompkins, MD, PhD, Professor of Medicine, Infectious Disease and Professor of Microbiology and Immunology at the Stanford University School of Medicine.

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