September 1, 2014

Lionel F. Jaffe

Dr. Lionel F. Jaffe, 83, of Falmouth, a senior scientist at the Marine Biological Laboratory (MBL) in Woods Hole since 1982, died April 27 after a brief illness.

Dr. Jaffe made major contributions to cell and developmental biology, including his 1978 discovery that, during fertilization, the sperm initiates a wave of calcium that travels across the egg and initiates embryonic development. Dr. Jaffe studied the role of calcium waves in many kinds of biological processes, research that he continued until the time of his death.

Dr. Jaffe also co-invented the vibrating probe, a pioneering device that allowed scientists to study the electrical currents in and around cells and tissues non-invasively, and with great sensitivity. The vibrating probe, which Dr. Jaffe and Dr. Richard Nuccitelli introduced in 1974, initiated new areas of research into the role of electrical currents in the growth and development of cells and tissues, and how modifying those currents can be applied in medical fields such as wound healing, nerve and tissue regeneration, and cancer therapy.

Dr. Jaffe directed the National Vibrating Probe Facility at the MBL from 1982 to 1994. This facility was a national resource for scientists who visited the MBL to learn Dr. Jaffe’s technology and adopt it for a wide range of biomedical research initiatives. Dr. Jaffe was a frequent lecturer at the MBL, especially in the Physiology and Embryology courses, and in 1991 he delivered a Friday Evening Lecture, “Calcium Oscillations, Waves, and Gradients.”

Prior to coming to the MBL, Dr. Jaffe was a professor of biology at Purdue University in West Lafayette, Indiana, from 1967 to 1984. Many of the graduate students and postdoctoral fellows from his Purdue laboratory have gone on to have successful careers in science.

Born in 1927 in Brooklyn, New York, Dr. Jaffe’s parents were high school teachers, and his father, Bernard, was a well-known author of chemistry textbooks and biographies of scientists. When Dr. Jaffe was a high school senior, he won third place in the Westinghouse Science Talent Search, a nationwide competition, for his study of soap bubbles.

Dr. Jaffe graduated from Harvard College in 1948 with a degree in biochemical sciences. He received his Ph.D. in developmental physiology at California Institute of Technology with Dr. Albert Tyler and Dr. Frits Went. Dr. Jaffe subsequently held academic research positions at Hopkins Marine Station in Pacific Grove, Calif., Scripps Institution of Oceanography, Brandeis University and the University of Pennsylvania.

Dr. Jaffe is survived by his loving children, Dr. Laurinda A. Jaffe and her partner Dr. Mark Terasaki of West Hartford, Conn., Amanda Jaffe of Las Cruces, New Mexico, and Dr. David Jaffe and his wife Emily Ranken of Arlington, Mass.; and four grandchildren, Paul and Lucas Jaffe and Ben and Will Boecklen. He was predeceased by his wife of 60 years, Dr. Miriam (Walther) Jaffe, in 2009. Miriam Jaffe was a professor of astronomy at Purdue University prior to the couple’s move to Falmouth.

Dr. Jaffe’s daughter, Laurinda, a professor of cell biology at the University of Connecticut Health Center who has been on the faculty of MBL courses since the early 1980s, recalls that her father “was very focused on his science. He was fully involved with it right to the end.” He also read widely and enjoyed politics, travel, restaurants, museums, and painted as a hobby. Dr. Jaffe’s second daughter, Amanda, is a ceramic artist and professor of art at New Mexico State University. His son, David, is director of computational research and development in the Genome Sequencing and Analysis Program at the Broad Institute in Cambridge, Mass.

A burial service will be held at 4 PM on Sunday, May 29, at the Church of the Messiah, Woods Hole.

A scientific symposium in honor of Dr. Jaffe is being planned.

In lieu of flowers, contributions may be made to the Marine Biological Laboratory, c/o Development Office, 7 MBL Street, Woods Hole, MA 02543.