John Julius Biesele was born March 24, 1918, in Waco, Texas, and died July 24, 2009, in Austin, Texas. As a teenager, John became fascinated by natural history after reading William Beebe’s accounts of his expeditions. Birds became a particular passion and he wanted to become a field naturalist. As an undergraduate at The University of Texas, John studied comparative anatomy under Theophilus S. Painter and cytology from John T. Patterson. He wrote that “although in my heart of hearts I wanted to become an outdoor naturalist, I was readily diverted into becoming a laboratory biologist.” He continued to maintain, however, an active interest in natural history and supported many conservation projects. These included protection of the habitat for the endangered golden-cheeked warbler west of Austin and conservation of the Big Thicket in East Texas. John received his B.A. degree in 1939 and his Ph.D. in 1942 for studies under Theophilus Painter at UT.
John’s doctoral studies focused on chromosomal abnormalities in mouse tumor cells. He observed that the chromosomes were larger than normal in tumor cells because of duplication without accompanying cell division and suggested that this increase could be one result of the carcinogenesis. These studies were the start of a life-long focus on the cytological basis of carcinogenesis. He continued these studies first as a fellow of the International Cancer Research Foundation at UT in the year following his doctoral studies, and then at the Barnard Skin and Cancer Hospital in St. Louis in 1943. He was an instructor in 1943-44 at the University of Pennsylvania; research associate at the Carnegie Institute of Washington, New York, 1945-46; and research associate at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, 1946, where he learned novel techniques of electron microscopy and ultraviolet and phase contrast microscopy with the guidance of the microscopy pioneer, Dr. Francis O. Schmitt. John then became an associate scientist in the Division of Chemotherapy of the Sloan-Kettering Institute for Cancer Research in New York and a professor of biology at the Cornell University Medical School until 1958. These extensive studies culminated in the book, Mitotic Poisons and the Cancer Problem, published in 1958. Dr. Albert Levan, a Swedish cytogeneticist of the University of Lund, was a guest worker in John’s laboratory in 1955. His aim was to obtain good chromosomes in mammalian culture material. John suggested use of colchicine and a hypotonic pretreatment for spreading chromosomes of a cell. This enabled Levan to count the number of chromosomes in a human cell accurately. He found forty-six chromosomes in contrast to the early determination of forty-eight chromosomes by John’s mentor, Theophilus Painter, some thirty-three years earlier.
John was persuaded to come to UT in 1958 where he was appointed professor of zoology, a position held until 1978, when he retired as professor emeritus. John’s studies continued to focus on chromosomes and chromosome structure and their relation to cancer. He soon acquired a Siemens Electron Microscope, the first at the University. Robert W. Riess became John’s assistant, who maintained the instrument and trained graduate students and research personnel in its use for many years.
The instrument not only greatly enhanced John’s chromosomal studies but John’s generous nature led to its use by many others in microbiology, chemistry and biochemistry, and in biomedical engineering. Robert Riess remarks that in the mid-1960s the microscope was often used literally twenty-four hours a day.
The scope of John’s electron microscope studies is remarkable. They ranged from studies of mitosis to correlations of chromosomal abnormalities with disease states other than cancer in humans and insects to studies of the movement of chromosomes and related organelles, such as centrioles.
John was informal but enthusiastic, relaxed, and generous in his training of graduate students. This approach is illustrated by the story of one student (Robert Blystone) about his introduction to “the professor.” He (Blystone) was working with the help of two Biesele graduate students (but without permission) with John’s precious electron microscope. When John’s assistant, Bob Riess, became aware of this, he called in Dr. Biesele who came immediately to remonstrate. But then after asking Blystone about his project, which had to do with Daphnia hemoglobin, Dr. Biesele soon suggested ways to achieve useful results. Shortly thereafter, Blystone became a Ph.D. student in the Biesele laboratory.
Bob Blystone recalls that John had an interesting perspective on what he called “reserved judgment.” Bob comments:
I had discovered a trend in nuclear envelope swelling in light-deprived invertebrate eyes. John and I discussed the observation and neither of us could explain it. John pushed back from his desk and said: ‘Time for a reserved judgment.’ He continued that occasionally one has to hold some data close to one’s chest until such a time that circumstance provides a path to understanding. Then he added: ‘But don’t take too long.’ I had never previously been instructed this way by him. He recalled that one of his early graduate students at Sloan Kettering had seen an electron-dense particle in his preparations and published a brief note in 1953. George Palade saw the note and quickly the ‘Palade’s particle’ became the ribosome. John Biesele was a good mentor.
Another student (Mike Mullins) remembers John as a kind and generous person who
gave me the great gift of allowing me to find my own way, scientifically. I had the luxury of picking my project with help from him and developing it in ways that would, I think, be largely impossible in most current situations of graduate training. I will always be grateful for this gentle and trusting approach. John had a fine sense of humor and graced the place with his wonderful Santa Claus-like laugh.
Bob Riess reflects that John’s unique personality provided “lasting memories such as his softly sung or hummed Christmas carols emanating from his office – in July.”
Abel Robertson, one of John’s early students, comments that “I had the good fortune to join the laboratory as a Ph.D. candidate in 1953 and from the very first day I found in him a most caring, understanding, and helpful educator who guided me until completing my doctoral thesis.”
John supervised eighteen doctoral dissertations and twenty-one master’s theses. In addition to his teaching, he was a popular speaker, delivering 180 lectures in the U.S. and abroad. His honors include Sigma Xi lecturer, 1957; Mendel lecturer, 1958 and 1971; and Research Career Awards 1962, 1967, and 1977.
John is survived by a sister, Grace Gregory, of Watkins Glen, New York. He was married to Marguerite Calfee McAfee for almost fifty years. He is survived by their daughters: Megan Biesele and her husband, Steve Barclay, of Austin; Janie Hinchliffe and her husband, Paul Hinchliffe, of Dripping Springs, Texas; and Diana Burnett and her husband, Peter Burnett, of Hamilton, Virginia. His granddaughters are Abbey Chapin Burnett and Ellie Chapin Burnett of Hamilton, Virginia. Widowed in 1991, John married Esther Aline Eakin and lived with her in Austin for fifteen years until her death. He is survived by step-children: Tim Eakin; Pat Eakin and his wife, Mary Margaret Eakin, of Austin; Kelly Eakin and his wife, Marla Maeder, of Madison, Wisconsin; and Mike Eakin and his wife, Jean Eakin, of Billings, Montana.