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Obituary: Milton J. Schlesinger, professor emeritus, 89

Pioneering virologist twice served as interim head of microbiology department

November 2, 2017

Milton J. Schlesinger, PhD, a professor emeritus of molecular microbiology, died of heart failure Friday, Oct. 27, 2017, at his home in Berkeley, Calif., after a long period of illness. He was 89.

Schlesinger was a professor of microbiology (later, molecular microbiology) at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis, from 1964 until 1999. During his tenure, he twice served as acting head of his department.

“Milton was an outstanding citizen and supporter of the department and university, and is fondly remembered by all of his colleagues,” said Stephen M. Beverley, the Marvin A. Brennecke Professor and head of the Department of Molecular Microbiology.

Schlesinger also served for two years as head of the Executive Council of the Division of Biology & Biomedical Sciences and wrote a definitive history of the microbiology department, starting from its inception to the present day. He was named an emeritus professor in 1999.

His work focused on diverse aspects of viral assembly and replication. “Milton was one of the first to use the power of defined viral systems to probe fundamental processes of protein folding and modification, in advance of the recombinant DNA revolution,” Beverley said.

The virologist authored nearly 200 papers and books, including key studies on heat shock proteins and protein modification. Among his most noted discoveries, he identified the first examples in vertebrate cells of heat-shock proteins, which cells produce when their normal proteins unfold as a result of high temperature or other stressful conditions. Heat-shock proteins refold the damaged proteins, helping the cell survive.

Schlesinger and his wife of 62 years, Sondra Schlesinger — also a Washington University emeritus professor and an occasional scientific collaborator with her husband — moved to Berkeley in 2003 but were frequent visitors to St. Louis and maintained a strong interest in the department. They enjoyed meeting new faculty and students.

Among Schlesinger’s honors, he was a fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the highest honor awarded by the organization.

He earned his bachelor’s degree in physics from Yale University in 1951; a master’s degree in biophysics from the University of Rochester in 1953; and his PhD in biochemistry from the University of Michigan in 1959.

After earning his doctorate, he remained a research associate at Michigan and then became a guest research investigator at the Institute Superiore di Sanita in Rome. From 1961 to 1964, he was a research associate at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, after which he joined the faculty at Washington University as an assistant professor of virology.

He is survived by his wife.

A memorial in St. Louis in the spring is being planned.