Jonathan Budinoff Wittenberg 

Jonathan Budinoff Wittenberg

With sadness we share the passing of Society Emeritus member Jonathan Budinoff Wittenberg who died on July 25, 2023 at the age of 99, a few weeks before his 100th birthday. The MBL flag will be lowered in his memory.

A renowned biochemist whose career spanned five decades, Wittenberg published more than 130 scientific papers on the roles of hemoglobin and myoglobin in oxygen transport. Much of this work was done in collaboration with his wife of 69 years, Dr. Beatrice Wittenberg. Both were professors at Albert Einstein College of Medicine in the Bronx from the mid-1950s until their retirement in the 1980s. Wittenberg did much of his research during the summers at the MBL starting in 1946. Since 1954 the Wittenberg family spent almost every summer in Woods Hole, until eventually moving there year-round in 2008.

An obituary provided by his family is below.

Thro' all the tumult and the strife
I hear the music ringing;
It finds an echo in my soul—
How can I keep from singing?
- folksong

It is with profound sadness that we announce the passing of Jonathan Budinoff Wittenberg on July 25, 2023.  He died peacefully in Woods Hole, Massachusetts, at the age of 99, a few weeks before his 100th birthday.  He is survived by his wife of 69 years, Beate Angela Wittenberg, and their three children, David (Cynthia Kagno), William (Deborah Halber), Rebecca Linden (Cris Jones Linden) and five grandchildren, Brett, Ruth, Claudia, Dyson and Jacob,  as well as many friends and colleagues from around the world.  He was preceded in death by his sister Susanna, and his parents Phillip and Ruth Wittenberg.

In the second half of his life  he was instantly recognizable by his unruly shoulder length hair, Navajo belt buckle, and bolo tie. He was a brilliant research scientist with 109 published papers, photographer, fisherman, gardener, dancer, teller of tales, unsmiling narrator of off-color jokes,  truly inspired teacher, lover of song and poetry, and even silversmith. He loved the people in his life with gusto, and wherever he went made friends and learned from those around him.  We will miss him greatly.

An avid fisherman and boatsman, Jonathan was well known for looking out the window from his library desk at MBL, standing up, and announcing ”It’s time to go fishing!” leaving the other scientists wondering how this moment differed from the one before. Frequently getting up with the tide so he could slip under the bridge before the bridge tender was awake to open it,  he loved going out to catch bluefish, which he would fry up for breakfast, or if there was enough, smoke extra to share with friends, or even trade to glean the neighbors raspberry bushes. On his small motor boat the Bouncing Beck he took generations of children and friends on trips to the neighboring islands for a swim at Tarpaulin Cove, or on a clear day all the way to Gay Head,  a visit to Cuttyhunk for ice cream, or a walk in Edgartown. But watch out! If there were bluefish jumping, these trips could go long!

Jonathan Budinoff Wittenberg was born on September 19th, 1923, in Brooklyn Heights, New York, to Phillip and Ruth Wittenberg. Phillip was a well known civil rights lawyer and author, the first to fight McCarthy with the fifth amendment:  Ruth started her career as a a mathematician with Bell Labs and became an activist in Greenwich village who championed  worker’s rights and saving historical landmarks.  Jonathan was a naturalist from a young age, though his mother drew the line at having snakes studied in her bathtub. He grew up wandering and exploring the countryside of NY and Connecticut with his many cousins.  While living in Greenwich Village as a teenager, he enrolled in the newly opened Bronx High School of Science where he first encountered like-minded lifelong friends and developed a passion for spirituals and early jazz. He wanted to play cello, but felt he had a “tin ear,” though it didn’t stop him singing off-key throughout his life.

Jonathan went on to Harvard University where he enjoyed courses in comparative anatomy, biology, biophysics, chemistry and others.  He completed his master’s degree in Zoology at Columbia University, and then began work toward his Ph.D. in biochemistry at Columbia University Medical School.  At Columbia, he was the first graduate student taken on by David Shemin, who later became a great friend.  Jonathan collaborated with Shemin on studies using isotopic tracers to study the nature of blood.  It was in his graduate program that Jonathan developed his interest in the “monster molecule” of heme - the red substance in blood that distributes oxygen. Although he was so color-blind he could not pick a cardinal out of a tree, or a raspberry on a bush, he studied this red pigment his entire life, and could distinguish different oxygenation levels by sight.

Upon completing his Ph.D. in 1950, Jonathan got in an old jalopy and drove across the country to Arizona.  During the three summers he spent there in his youth he took many portraits and landscape photographs which he printed himself and hung about the house until they were compiled into a book, “Navajo Nation 1950:  A Traditional Life in Photographs,” in 2006.  As he said in this book, "I camped out in the Dinetah (Navajo traditional lands), got dusty, faded into the background, and accepted what came my way." This interest in the Diné became a lifelong passion.

Jonathan then went to Cleveland to work as a Senior Instructor in the Department of Medicine at Western Reserve University.  It was there that he met his future wife, Bea, at a seminar course. He asked her to marry her near Yale university at east rock, saying he found a woman smarter than he.  They married on March 27th, 1954 in his mother’s garden, surrounded by friends and family. They then stayed on in New York to join the Department of Physiology and helped form the new Albert Einstein College of Medicine.

During the half century they worked together in adjacent laboratories with an open door between them during the day, while sleeping in the same bed at night, Drs. Jonathan and Beatrice Wittenberg co-authored over 60 papers.

In 2008, Martino Bolognesi  brought together a group of colleagues to publish a book honoring the five decades “the Wittenbergs” had spent together exploring the mysteries of heme, "Dioxygen Binding and Sensing Proteins: A Tribute to Beatrice and Jonathan Wittenberg (Protein Reviews, 9).”  As the book’s foreword quotes younger colleagues, "All of us who study oxygen transport and all who value good science are in their debt.” Jonathan and Bea had “remarkable synergy”.

After they eventually shut down their labs at Albert Einstein, they continued to contribute to the scientific community well into their eighties by writing articles, serving on committees, presenting papers and graciously contributing their time and expertise.

Jonathan was known for his skill in designing and carrying out experiments.  He saw a question, engineered a way to test it and followed it till eventual publication. While mostly known for his work on leghemoglobin in root nodules, over half his papers were on other topics, including deep sea vent worms, clams, Portuguese man-o-war, mechanisms of oxygen transport into tuna eyes, and the nature of oxygen transfer in toadfish swimbladders.

Jonathan did much of this work during the summer at the Marine Biological Laboratory (MBL) in Woods Hole, MA., where he had been going since 1946. He was very proud of the trips he took on Oceanus, a Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute (WHOI) research vessel.

Since 1954 the Wittenberg family spent almost every summer in Woods Hole, until eventually moving there year-round in 2008.

Jonathan travelled for scientific meetings, always taking an extra week or two to learn the lay of the land and the people who lived there.  Even as a “Jew from Brooklyn” as he referred to himself, he had the ability to watch and listen and become a part to the point where he was often invited to share in the life of a town. Once his taxi driver in India invited him to his daughter’s wedding which he accepted gratefully and even tried to dance a dance he was completely unfamiliar with.

His scientist friends and colleagues were numerous and welcome guests at his home  - Cyril Appleby, Dick Heydrick, Collin Pittendrich, Jack Peisach, Sir Eric Denton, Ronald Nagel,  Quentin Gibson, Carl Gajdusek, Joan and Allen Finklestein, Jeffries Wyman, Robert Noble, Frank Carey, Ralph Wedgewood, Barbara Block, Michel Guertin, George and Bernice Pappas, Bill Blumberg, Bill Orme-Johnson, and so many others, he even published three papers with his sons David and William on Toadfish.

Jonathan was a welcoming host who loved to cook for others and learn new recipes from those who visited. On Sunday all were welcome for breakfasts at the Wittenbergs’. One of his great joys was eating in the garden, starting at his mother’s garden in Greenwich village, through his years in his Tuckahoe house in NY, to his last garden in Woods Hole.

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