Jacques Fresco, a professor in the Department of Molecular Biology who was on the University’s faculty from 1960 to 2013, died on Dec. 5 from complications due to heart disease. He was 93 years old.
Fresco is considered a pioneer in the study of nucleic acids and biochemistry. Working in Paul M. Doty’s lab at Harvard University in 1960, he and his student, Bruce Alberts, published a paper which outlined a structure for RNA. Tomas Lindahl, who worked as a researcher in Fresco’s lab from 1964–67 and went on to win a Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 2015, said in the University statement that in this paper, Fresco and Alberts “proposed the now generally accepted conformation of RNA.”
Stephen Buratowski, a Professor of Biological Chemistry and Molecular Pharmacology at Harvard Medical School, notes that this discovery was particularly impressive given the limited tools available to scientists at the time Fresco was conducting his research.
“Not having all the technologies we have now, the biochemists/molecular biologists of his generation spent a lot of their time just thinking and talking about how to design the best experiment and what the results would mean,” he said in an email to The Daily Princetonian. “They were inventing an entirely new field, so they had to be very creative.”
“These days we can quickly generate huge amounts of data, but many scientists now do experiments simply because they can, without asking whether they're going to learn anything useful,” he continued.
Fresco was born in New York in 1928 and completed his B.A. in biology and chemistry, M.S. in biology, and Ph.D. in biochemistry, all at New York University.
Fresco came to Princeton as an assistant professor in 1960. In 1961, he and a colleague became the first members of the Program in Biochemical Sciences. This eventually became the Biochemical Sciences Department, which Fresco chaired from 1974–80, before moving to the Molecular Biology Department, which was formed in 1984.
With over 170 papers published, Fresco conducted research that was rich in breadth and depth, as he investigated not only properties of nucleic acids but also proposed a method to determine amino acid compositions of our evolutionary ancestors and studied the genetic basis of sickle cell anemia and mechanisms causing certain types of DNA base pair mutations.
Fresco also worked closely with students, advising 32 Princeton University seniors on their theses.
Daniel Notterman, Senior Research Scholar and Professor in Molecular Biology, spoke to the ‘Prince’ about Fresco’s commitment to his students.
“He had a reputation of being a very serious mentor, one who looked after the interests of his students and people who worked in his laboratory,” he said in an interview.
“He not only was there to oversee research, but to help the careers of his trainees,” Notterman said.
Juan Alvarez-Dominguez, who serves as an assistant professor at the Perelman School of Medicine of the University of Pennsylvania, completed his senior thesis with Professor Fresco in 2009.
“When my mother and sister visited Princeton for the first time, for my graduation, they were not only in awe of the beautiful campus, but of the energetic, 81-year-old advisor who drove us around,” he said in an email to the ‘Prince.’
Alberts, with whom Fresco collaborated for his pivotal 1960 paper, also remarked on Fresco’s devotion to his mentees.
“Jacques had a real eye for talented young people, whom he paid great attention to and mentored to successful careers,” he said in an email to the ‘Prince.’
Alberts met Fresco in 1957 as an undergraduate at Harvard, after he was assigned as Alberts’ tutor.
In an email that he wrote to Fresco’s daughter after his passing and shared with the ‘Prince,’ Alberts recalled the start of his research collaboration with the late professor.
“When in the fall of 1958, I asked him how I could get excused from the tedious physical chemistry laboratory I was taking the next semester, he got me into the Doty lab for a few hours a week as a substitute,” he wrote. “That led to the full time research that I did with him for two months in that lab in the summer of 1959, which was unreasonably successful and caused me not to apply to medical school, as I had long intended to do.”
Alberts and Fresco not only shared an academic relationship, but also a friendship that spanned 61 years. Alberts shared a letter that Fresco had written to him on his 80th birthday.
“Who could have imagined that as a Harvard junior you would have so beautifully executed an experiment I assigned you that it would result in two classic papers which are still often cited today; . . . that I convinced your Mother that you had the ability to be a scientist and not just a doctor; that I got you to spend a decade as a faculty member at Princeton, where your discovery of gene 32 protein led to your being awarded the Eli Lilly Award of the American Chemical Society (after which your Mother wrote me that I was right and she was wrong),” the letter said.
“Indeed, our interactions over these many years have meant even more than that. You cannot imagine the impact that you're one of the two best students I ever had on me, and especially that you came so early on in my career. And more than that has been what our long-term warm friendship has meant to me,” the letter continues.
“It certainly makes up for not having had a son or a brother,” Fresco wrote.
Among his colleagues, Fresco was also known to be a knowledgeable conversationalist.
“He was really an engaging, warm, urbane, person who was always very happy to talk about his research, talk about current events, talk about literature,” Notterman said. “They don’t really make them as well-rounded as Jacques Fresco anymore.”
Fresco is survived by his wife Rosalie Fresco; his three daughters, Lucille, ‘Lulu’ Fresco-Cohen, Suzette ‘Suzi’ Fresco Johnson, and Linda Fresco; eight grandchildren, Erik Johnson, Nicole Johnson ’12, Mikaela Johnson, Jacqueline Comiter, Golan Cohen, Galil Cohen, Laurel Comiter, and Hayley Cohen; and two great-grandchildren, Ben Johnson and Tommy Johnson.
Sandeep Mangat is an Associate News Editor who has reported on labor shortages on and off campus, University guidelines regarding the COVID-19 pandemic, international student life, and research led by Princeton faculty. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and on Twitter @s_smangat.