October 21, 2014

Malcolm S. Steinberg

Dr. Malcolm S. Steinberg, 81, an emeritus professor of molecular biology at Princeton University, died from complications of lung cancer on February 7 at his home in Princeton. He was surrounded by his wife Marjorie and his four children, Jeff, Julie, Ellie, and Jay.

Great scientists are people who find tremendous joy and purpose in the work they are doing, and whose habits of mind and spirit inspire their colleagues and students. Their gift to the world is a body of work that illuminates the workings of nature. Malcolm Steinberg was a great scientist. His long and productive career began as an undergraduate at Amherst College where he worked on amphibian limb regeneration under the guidance of Oscar Schotté, an outspoken, passionate biology professor with an off-color sense of humor greatly appreciated by young Malcolm. It was while working with Schotté that Malcolm fell in love with research and decided to pursue a PhD instead of the medical education his father had envisioned for him.

Malcolm earned his PhD in 1956 from the University of Minnesota, although he carried out his thesis experiments at the Marine Biological Laboratory in Woods Hole, a place where he spent many happy and productive summers throughout his career, conducting research, teaching embryology, and enjoying lobstering and clamming from his prized Boston Whaler.

In the early 1960s, Malcolm formulated the Differential Adhesion Hypothesis to explain how cells assume their characteristic positions in the developing embryo. From the 1960s through the 1990s, he and his students at Johns Hopkins and Princeton Universities tested the hypothesis, revealing fundamental physical properties of cellular behavior. Scientists worldwide continue to build on his work to understand how the chemistry of cell adhesion, working through physical forces, can reveal important information about tissue regeneration, cancer cell invasion, wound healing, and embryonic development.

Malcolm is survived by a legion of academic offspring who are grateful to have had the opportunity to know him as a scientist, mentor, teacher, and friend. He will be remembered by friends and family as a warm and lovable man with an infectious laugh, for whom just about anything reminded him of a story, whose eyes would light up at the mention of the next meal, who took great joy tending his garden, and who loved to hold hands with his wife Marge.