Christopher T. Walsh, a highly influential chemical biology professor, former MIT faculty member and head of the chemistry department, died Jan. 10 at the age of 79.
At the time of his death, Walsh was the Hamilton Kuhn Professor Emeritus of Biological Chemistry and Molecular Pharmacology at Harvard Medical School, but he began his career in 1972 as a cross-appointed faculty member in the departments of Chemistry and Biology. from MIT. Walsh would spend 15 years at MIT and head the chemistry department from 1982 to 1987.
“Chris T. Walsh was a titan of chemical biology, who made groundbreaking contributions to antibiotic resistance, enzymatic reaction mechanisms and the biosynthesis of natural products,” says Professor Troy Van Voorhis, the current Director from the Department of Chemistry at MIT. “He was a leader at MIT during his college years here and a valued member of the chemistry community in the Greater Boston area. He will be greatly missed.”
A native of Boston, Walsh’s academic career began at Roxbury Latin School, which led to his undergraduate degree at Harvard University and his doctorate at Rockefeller University. He did postdoctoral research at Brandeis University before starting his independent research, focusing on enzymes and enzyme inhibitors, with a focus on antibiotics and the biosynthesis of other biologically and medically active natural products, at MIT. as a jointly appointed faculty member in the departments of Chemistry and Biology.
Chemistry and biology professor Catherine Drennan would need “the space of a book” to adequately describe what Walsh meant to her as a collaborator, mentor and friend. “We had so many great conversations about science, often in front of a graphics computer looking at a new crystal structure with our students gathered around us,” Drennan recalls. “And, beyond the professional advice that started early in my career and went beyond the end of our formal scientific collaboration, he was a friend. I will never forget sitting in Au Bon Pain at Brigham and Women’s Hospital, after learning that my mother had cancer, when my cell phone rang. It was Chris. He had heard about my mother’s diagnosis and wanted to see if he could do anything. Whoever said “Never meet your heroes” never met Chris Walsh.
In a 2010 reflection on his career published in the Journal of Biological Chemistry, Walsh described his research “at a three-way intersection of biology, chemistry and medicine”. His leadership, expertise, and extraordinary contributions to his field have earned him membership in the National Academy of Sciences, the American Academy of Sciences, the US National Academy of Medicine, and the American Philosophical Society, and earned him a number of prestigious awards and accolades, including the Eli Lilly Prize in Biological Chemistry, the Arthur C. Cope Scholar Prize, and the Welch Prize, which he shared with longtime friend and collaborator Professor Emeritus by NovartisJoAnne Stubbe.
“Since the early 1970s, I’ve had the pleasure of interacting with and being inspired by this gifted scientist,” Stubbe says. “I loved that he shared with me the challenges and his incredible ability to identify and untangle so many unexpected chemical transformations. Phosphopantetheinyl Enterobactin Biosynthetic Enzymes! Really! I will so, so miss [Walsh].”
Walsh has authored more than 800 articles and 10 books, the first of which, “Mechanisms of Enzymatic Reaction,” grew out of teaching Walsh 5.50, a graduate course of the same name on the chemical mechanisms of transformations. Published in 1979, Walsh’s seventh year as an MIT faculty member, the book retains the distinction of being a timeless text in the field.”‘Enzymatic Reaction Mechanisms’ was the first to apply logic from chemistry to metabolic reactions,” says Ronald T. Raines, Roger and Georges Firmenich Professor of Natural Product Chemistry. others!) to work with [Walsh] on the exploration and exploitation of enzymes. I have countless memories of his playful humor and am grateful for his inspiration as a remarkably agile and prolific scientist, as well as his lifelong mentorship.
Walsh’s unparalleled impact on the field of chemical biology is surpassed only by his invaluable dedication to his students and mentees, including Associate Department Head and Ivan R. Cottrell Professor of Immunology Elizabeth M. Nolan, who conducted his postdoctoral research in Walsh’s lab at Harvard Medical School. “Chris was an amazing scientist, educator, mentor, and person,” says Nolan. “His intellect, wisdom and ability to see the big picture were remarkable and he was an invaluable source of advice. His multitude of contributions to chemistry, biology and beyond are simply countless. we miss it.”
Walsh is survived by his wife of 57 years, Diana Chapman Walsh, Lifetime Fellow of the MIT Corporation and President Emeritus of Wellesley College; his daughter, Allison Kurian, professor of oncology at Stanford Medical School; and her beloved grandson, Sean.
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