Generally viewed as one of the most important and prolific researchers of the past 60 years, Seymour Benzer is sometimes referred to as a Renaissance man of modern science. His accomplishments span several fields and there appears no limit to his interest and very little to his ability.
Born in 1921 into a family with no apparent history of scientific interest or ability, he had already established a laboratory in the basement of his Brooklyn home by the time he received a microscope as a bar mitzvah present when he was 13. At age 16, he graduated from high school. He went to Brooklyn College on a Regents Scholarship, earning his BS in physics and then received his Masters degree and his PhD in physics from Purdue University.
During World War II he worked on a secret military radar project on semiconductor devices with a group at Purdue whose work contributed to the development of the transistor.
By the early 1950s he was immersed in biology, searching for the secret of life in the gene. He continued on at Purdue, as an associate and then a full professor, until 1967, but during that time spent sabbaticals in numerous other institutions, including Cold Spring Harbor, Oak Ridge National Laboratory, California Institute of Technology, the Institut Pasteur, Cambridge University, and the Salk Institute. In 1967 he accepted a professorship at the California Institute of Technology where he continues as an Emeritus professor and maintains an active lab.
Benzer is credited with demonstrating that a gene can be split into hundreds of components, each able to mutate. In the mid-20th century his work was pivotal in establishing gene structure and he is recognized as a pioneer in the field of molecular biology. In the mid-1960s he moved into neurobiology and began to concentrate on behavioral genetics, beginning a lasting and spectacularly successful affiliation with an unpresuming ally: the fruit fly or Drosophila.
While Drosophila had been used in experiments before, few believed as Benzer did that it would be a useful model for studying how genes relate to behavior. With humor, he dealt with the ridicule, embracing rather than shunning his image as the fly guy. Not infrequently he spiced his lectures with pictures depicting outlandish images: Benzer with a fly on his nose, Darwin with a fly's head superimposed on his face, Benzer reenacting a scene from the horror movie "The Fly."
But his work was serious. By painstakingly altering genes in individual Drosophila, creating mutants, and observing how these changes affected behavior, he and his students not only established the molecular component in behavior, they identified numerous genes with specific functions, including genes involved in memory and learning, in vision, in sexual conduct, in determining time periods of activity and in aging. They have shown that at least half of the Drosophila genes have human counterparts and inspired myriad researchers to use the fly to study everything from alcoholism to the effects of psychotropic drugs.
Benzer's research has sometimes been driven by his own life experiences. A notorious "night owl," he was understandably intrigued by the circadian rhythm of the fruit fly, and with student Ronald Konopka, discovered the first gene that controls this rhythm. He also has exercised a willingness to follow where the research leads, moving from one discovery to the next along the genetic chain.
His influence extends across generations. He has collaborated with scores of brilliant scientists, many his own students. He has lectured widely and belongs to a host of professional societies.
Benzer has three children, Barbara, Martha and Alexander, and four grandchildren. He is married to Carol Miller, professor of neuropathology at the University of Southern California, with whom he collaborates. They live in California and, in addition to Alexander, have raised Carol's sons Renny and Douglas, both molecular biologists. Benzer and his ground-breaking work are the subjects of the award-winning book, Time, Love, Memory by Jonathan Weiner.