Harold Amos

Harvard University Gazette – February 8, 2007

Faculty of Medicine – Memorial Minute

Harold Amos, scientist, educator, mentor, and avid Francophile, was born in Pennsauken, New Jersey, the second of nine children of Howard R. Amos Sr., who worked in the Philadelphia post office, and his wife Iola Johnson. Iola had been adopted by, and worked for, a prominent Philadelphia Quaker family who home schooled her with their own children. This family remained lifelong friends of Iola and kept the young Amos family well supplied with books, including a biography of Louis Pasteur, which stimulated fourth-grader Harold’s interest in science. Harold did confide that an important factor in his becoming enchanted with microbiology and immunology at such a young age was the combination of Pasteur’s use of goats as experimental animals and his own dislike of the family goat.

Harold received his early education in a segregated school in Pennsauken, then graduated first in his class from Camden High School in New Jersey. He later recalled that the wonderful teachers he had in primary and secondary schools awakened in him his love of teaching. After high school graduation in 1936, he attended Springfield College in Springfield, Massachusetts, on a full academic scholarship at a time when very few such scholarships were offered to African Americans. He graduated Summa cum Laude in 1941, with a major in Biology and a minor in Chemistry. The following year he worked as a graduate assistant in the Biology Department at Springfield College.

Upon his return to the United States in the fall of 1946, Harold enrolled in the Biological Sciences’ graduate program within the Division of Medical Sciences at Harvard Medical School. He earned an M.A. in 1947 and a Ph.D. in 1952, becoming the first African American to earn a doctoral degree from the Division. Harold was a graduate student with Howard J. Mueller, chairman of the then named Department of Bacteriology and Immunology, now Microbiology and Molecular Genetics. Mueller was famous as the discoverer of methionine through studies of bacterial nutrition but, in those days of breadth, Harold’s thesis project was in virology, on agents affecting infectivity of Herpes virus, using plaquing on the chick chorio-allantoic membrane as earlier reported by John Enders in the Department. Perhaps it was a relief afterwards to completely switch fields, a Fulbright Fellowship taking him to the Pasteur Institute – and back to France to reinforce the Francophile within – to work with threonine mutants of Escherichia coli in the laboratory of Georges Cohen.

Those were the years in Paris when the Pasteur Institute, with to-be Nobel laureates Andre Lwoff, Jacques Monod, and Francois Jacob, was becoming a Mecca for American scientists, and it is no surprise that on his return to Harvard Medical School, now as a faculty member, Amos’ next papers were on E. coli and its phages, a notable one being the 1958 finding of 5-methylcytosine in E. coli RNA, confirmed only decades later.

Harold described teaching as one of his greatest joys. He was always accessible and quick to offer words of praise, encouragement, advice, and support. Even during his graduate school days, he was lauded for his devotion to teaching and his compassion as a mentor. He followed his students’ careers and personal lives with enthusiasm, regularly corresponding with countless medical and graduate students, many of whom today hold important positions in a very broad range of fields.

Harold was the recipient of numerous awards, including an Honoris Causa doctoral degree from Harvard University (1996), the Centennial Medal of the Harvard Graduate School of Arts and Sciences (2000), the first Charles Drew World Medical Prize from Howard University (1989), and the National Academy of Sciences’ highest honor, the Public Welfare Medal (1995). He was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences (1974), named a Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (1991), and the Institute of Medicine of the National Academy of Sciences (1991). A truly modest man, few of his colleagues or relatives were aware of the full range of honors he had received. His modesty was typified when friends decided his bust should be placed in the Division of Medical Sciences graduate student lounge when it was named in Harold’s honor. He refused to sit for the sculptor, and a photograph from which the sculptor could work was only obtained by subterfuge.

It is a custom to assert, and sometimes kindly exaggerate, our colleagues’ selfless dedication to the personal as well as scientific welfare of their associates and students. In Harold’s case, the assertions would be correct and, to many of us, his very essence. He made a large difference in the lives of many people, spending time, patience, and effort on their behalf: professional advice to colleagues and students, attending their talks, counseling on academic and personal problems, even playing tennis with those who did not deserve his high standard. Consequently, as was well known – and sometimes irritating – a conversation with him, in the corridor or walking across the Quadrangle, was likely to be interrupted by engagement with someone else, often a former medical student (there appeared to be thousands of them) whose history would be keenly remembered and attended to and, likely as not, would finally be politely concluded with an invitation (usually vague!) to share a meal soon at the current favorite French restaurant. Many of us were indeed quite fortunate to converse at length with Harold at such restaurants over wonderful meals invariably accompanied by fine wine and espresso. Harold was able to enjoy in the sharing of his gastronomic passions until the very end – listed in his agenda for the last days of February 2003 remain the plans for several such meals with friends. Harold, we miss you, cherish the companionship and inspiration of the time spent in your company, and continue to survey this town’s culinary marvels in your honor!

  • Roberto Kolter, Chairperson
  • Darren Higgins
  • Dan Fraenkel
  • Morris Karnovsky
  • Jocelyn Spragg
  • Tom Fox

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