Thomas A. Steitz, a towering figure of late-20th-century science who shared a Nobel Prize in Chemistry for figuring out the structure of a huge molecule central to translating the genetic code into the proteins that make up living matter, died on Tuesday October 9 2018 at his home in Branford, Conn. He was 78.
The cause was pancreatic cancer, his daughter-in-law Dr. Katherine Van Loon said.
His Nobel, awarded in 2009, was for his discovery of the exact size, shape and position of every atom in the ribosome, the large molecule that is the site of such crucial protein synthesis. Dr. Steitz shared the 2009 Nobel with the Indian-born American molecular biologist Venkatraman Ramakrishnan and Ada E. Yonath of the Weizmann Institute of Science in Rehovot, Israel. All were honored for their ribosome research, which they conducted independently of one another.
Thomas Arthur Steitz was born in Milwaukee on Aug. 23, 1940, the oldest of five children. His father, Arthur, was in charge of personnel at the Milwaukee County Hospital. His mother, Catherine (Brown) Steitz, took care of Tom and his siblings. Until he was 9 his family lived above a paint store. They then moved to a Milwaukee suburb, Wauwatosa, Wis.
Dr. Steitz received a full scholarship to Lawrence College, in Appleton, Wis. He went to Harvard for graduate school. After Harvard, Dr. Steitz spent three years at the Medical Research Council Laboratory of Molecular Biology in Cambridge, England.
After Cambridge Dr. Steitz began a long career at Yale, which also hired his wife, Joan Argetsinger Steitz, an eminent molecular biologist and recipient this year of a prestigious Lasker special achievement award in medical science. Dr. Steitz met Joan Argetsinger while they were both graduate students in biochemistry and molecular biology at Harvard.
In addition to his wife, Dr. Steitz is survived by their son, Jon Glenn Steitz; two grandchildren; and four siblings: Richard, William and Mary Steitz and Sally Honeck.