Institute Professor Francis O. Schmitt
Institute Professor Emeritus Francis O. Schmitt, internationally recognized as a pioneer in modern biological research and in the study of the brain, died Tuesday, Oct. 3, at his home in Weston. He was 91.
In 1941, Schmitt accepted a call from MIT President Karl Taylor Compton to head the Institute's effort to develop a world center for molecular biology. After time spent on war research on biomedical problems, particularly on wound repair and the treatment of burns, the MIT biology staff, under Schmitt's direction, started an intensive program of teaching and research in molecular biology with the use of available biophysical and biochemical techniques.
In his fundamental biological research, Schmitt used tools and techniques of experimental physics like the X-ray, polarized light, spectroscopy, and the electron microscope. He was one of the world's foremost authorities on the biological uses of the electron microscope, the instrument which enabled scientists to photograph and study biomolecular structures. Many of the students Schmitt worked with during that period went on to become world leaders in molecular biology.
Schmitt's studies included research on kidney function, conduction in heart muscle, tissue metabolism, chemistry and physiology of nerves, ultrasonic radiation, properties of surface films, biochemistry and electrophysiology of nerves, and the molecular architecture of cells and tissues.
In the early 1950s Schmitt helped establish a Division of Biochemistry to provide a parallel concentration in this area of modern analytical biology.
After serving as the head of MIT's Department of Biology from 1942 to 1955, Schmitt began to devote his attention to teaching and research
"Frank's leadership was critical in developing modern biochemistry and cellular biology at MIT, and his spirit will be greatly missed," said Phillip A. Sharp, the current head of the department.
In 1962, Schmitt began to devote his time to the Neurosciences Research Program, which he established with headquarters at the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. Schmitt was chairman of the NRP from 1962 to 1974.
The NRP, which had an academic affiliation with MIT, was Schmitt's means of promoting research in what he considered the last frontier of science: the brain and brain function.
Schmitt remained at MIT to continue his research in molecular genetics, and he continued to pursue his research interests, following his official retirement from the Institute in 1969.
Born in St. Louis in 1903, Schmitt received an AB degree in 1924 and a PhD in medical science in 1927 from Washington University. His father had wanted him to be a surgeon, but Schmitt ceased his medical studies to concentrate on the fields of chemistry and biology.
After receiving his PhD, Schmitt pursued advanced study at the University of California, University College in London, and the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute (now the Max Planck Institute). In 1929 he was appointed to the faculty of Washington University and moved up in the ranks to become head of the department of zoology there by the time he came to MIT as a full professor.
His many awards and honors included the Albert Lasker Award of the American Public Health Association, the Alsop Award of the American Leather Chemists Association, and the T. Duckett Jones Award of the Helen Hay Whitney Foundation. He received honorary doctorate degrees from a number of universities. He was a member of numerous scientific and learned associations, including the National Academy of Sciences, the American Philosophical Society, and the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences, from which he received an honorary MD degree.
He leaves a daughter, Marion Ellis of Cambridge; a son, Robert H. Schmitt of San Diego; a brother, Otto H. Schmitt of Minneapolis, six grandchildren, and five great-grandchildren.