Walter Fitch Passes Away

| 11 Comments

Note: Passing along a letter I received.

Dear Colleagues,

I am sorry to report that a beloved member of our campus community, Dr. Walter Fitch, passed away in his sleep this morning [2011/03/11] at his home in University Hills. We will miss him dearly as a friend, as a colleague, and as a towering intellectual presence.

Walter was born in San Diego in 1929, and earned his Ph.D. in Comparative Biochemistry from the University of California, Berkeley in 1958. He was a post-doctoral scholar at both Stanford and University College (London) and held full professorships at the University of Wisconsin and the University of Southern California. He came to UC Irvine in 1989 as a Distinguished Professor and later became the Chair of the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology.

Walter was a founding father of the field of molecular evolution, and established methods for constructing phylogenetic trees from amino acid and nucleic acid sequences. He also made contributions to virology, the origin of life, taxonomy, genetics and molecular biology. For his work he was elected to the National Academy of Sciences, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and the Linnean Society (England). He founded the Society for Molecular Biology and Evolution and was the editor-in-chief of its journal, Molecular Biology and Evolution for its first 10 years. He contributed mightily not only to the intellectual process but as a mentor to young scientists.

Walter is survived by his beloved wife, his four children and several grandchildren. Funeral arrangements are pending.

Sincerely,

Brandon Gaut
Professor & Chair
Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology

11 Comments

He was one of the greatest molecular biologists of our time and will be missed. Thanks for passing this along Reed.

Walter was a good guy, an energetic and cheerful presence in the field of molecular phylogenetics, and a remarkable innovator who repeatedly came up with important new methods. He was also pragmatic and sensible and never bought into any of the waves of dogmatism that swept through the field. With Masatoshi Nei, he founded the journal Molecular Biology and Evolution, and the Society of Molecular Biology and Evolution (SMBE).

His most important achievements were the first major distance matrix method, the Fitch-Margoliash method of 1967 (Cavalli-Sforza and Edwards had a distance matrix method independently of him but did not publish it until later that same year). He also developed the Fitch parsimony algorithm, which was the first one able to calculate the parsimony score of a tree for DNA data (Systematic Zoology, 1971). It was also just about as fast as any such method could be. If all this sounds like I copied it from his Wikipedia page, it is because I wrote that part of the page. But the page is far too short and needs other people to expand it.

I not only respected Walter’ work, I always enjoyed chatting with him at meetings. In his later years he was affected by cancer, and also by some cognitive problems that reduced his ability to work. But he kept trying, which was inspiring. Hail and farewell, Walter!

NCSE’s obituary is here.

Walter was in the Physiological Chemistry dept in Madison when I began as a graduate student. He assigned my first seminar topic - Temperature jump kinetics - of which I was totally ignorant, but as a chemist found stimulating. In the process he taught me to use Science Citation Index to search literature forward in time.

His interest was in phylogeny with nucleotide sequences. We students were sure that nucleotide sequencing impractical and that he was wasting his time.

Glenn,

Thanks for posting the link to the NCSE obituary on Fitch. I hope he finished writing his manuscript (or had someone in mind to finish it for him). Didn’t realize how much of his spare time he had spent in refuting cretinism.

Appreciatively,

John

Walter did indeed finish his manuscript which is scheduled to be published by UC Press in the Spring of 2012. The tentative title is “Logic, Rhetoric and Science: And, Why Creationism Fails at All Three”. Walter lived long enough to see the final version of the text sent to the publisher.

Arrangements are being made for a memorial service, most likely at the Beckman Center (University of California, Irvine).

Messages of condolence sent to: University of California, Irvine/ Steinhaus #387/ Irvine, CA. 92697

will be forwarded to the family.

Tom Dobrzeniecki (Assistant to Walter Fitch)

Tom Dobrzeniecki said:

Walter did indeed finish his manuscript which is scheduled to be published by UC Press in the Spring of 2012. The tentative title is “Logic, Rhetoric and Science: And, Why Creationism Fails at All Three”. Walter lived long enough to see the final version of the text sent to the publisher.

Arrangements are being made for a memorial service, most likely at the Beckman Center (University of California, Irvine).

Messages of condolence sent to: University of California, Irvine/ Steinhaus #387/ Irvine, CA. 92697

will be forwarded to the family.

Tom Dobrzeniecki (Assistant to Walter Fitch)

Tom -

Thanks for the news and my condolences to you and your colleagues, as well as to Fitch’s family and friends, with regards to his passing. Am sure his book will be an important printed weapon that those hostile to valid mainstream science such as biological evolution should - if they are intellectually honest with themselves - take ample notice of and then heed the lessons to be drawn from this book.

Sincerely,

John

Walter sent out this Steve Sack cartoon in 2009 to his UMR list with the message:

“Hey gang we’re slowly getting it together.”

http://www.indiana.edu/~ensiweb/les[…]flatcart.pdf

I worked with him at USC and was honored to have him a friend for the past 25 years.

It is with great sadness that I hear of Walter’s passing. I would like to extend my sincere condolences to his family for their loss. Walter was my PhD advisor at UCI from 1998 through 2000 and I found him to be a gifted scientist, always original, rigorous, tireless in his pursuit of discovery, and extraordinarily clever. Walter was a scientist to his core, and I greatly admired his critical thought and inventiveness on every topic as well as his wit and humbleness. His contributions to molecular phylogenetics can not be understated. He’ll be missed.

Steve

I will always remember Walter’s smile. I did not find out until today that he has passed away. Walter had a gift of making everyone feel at ease be it a brand new graduate student or someone else. He was always happy to see you.

I just saw the news that Walter died.

I remember him so well - his incredible energy, smiling enthusiasm, and his eagerness constantly to work on something new and interesting. He had fantastic intuition about mathematical things, and loved to talk about algorithms and phylogenies. We had so much fun talking together.

A memory of him that I’ll keep with me is how he had come up with an algorithm for something, and hoped I could prove it correct. I tried but didn’t manage to. Too bad – I never got to write a paper with Walter.

He was a lovely person, and a reminder of how much we can enjoy life and our research. I will miss him.

Tandy

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This page contains a single entry by Reed A. Cartwright published on March 13, 2011 12:15 PM.

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