University professor of microbiology dies at 84 years old

Carl Woese, professor of microbiology, died Sunday at his Urbana home at 84 years old.

Woese, born in New York, graduated from Amherst College in 1950 with bachelor’s degrees in math and physics, and with a Ph.D. in biophysics from Yale University in 1953. He began working as a University professor of microbiology in 1964.

Woese “adopted a molecular approach to classifying organisms” and discovered a “third domain” of life, according to a press release. Along with two colleagues, he wrote two papers published in 1977 that reported archaea, a microbe, was distinct from bacteria. The discovery added archaea as a third branch to the “tree of life,” which previously had only the two branches of bacteria, or prokarya, and eukarya.

Gene Robinson, director of the Institute for Genomic Biology, described Woese in the press release as “a man of vision, creativity and passion.”

“Carl not only rewrote the textbook in evolutionary biology, but his discovery also has given us the tools today to study the human microbiome,” Robinson said in the press release.

Chancellor Phyllis Wise also expressed appreciation in the press release for Woese’s work.

“It is truly impossible to adequately describe or to categorize (Woese’s) contributions to the University of Illinois, to biology and to the world during his long and distinguished career here,” she said. “The campus community has lost one of our giants this week.”

Woese received several honors including the MacArthur Foundation grant in 1984 and the Leeuwenhoek Medal in 1992.