Theodore Puck, 89, Leader in Growing Cells for Research, Dies

The following article on Dr. Theodore Puck was published in the New York Times on November 14, 2005 and was written by Mr. Jeremy Pearce. The article has been quoted in its entirety.

(To view the original, please visit this link.)

Theodore T. Puck, a geneticist who devised an efficient method for growing colonies of human cells that he used in developing early and important tests for cell damage from radiation, and later for studying the genetic causes of cancers, died Nov. 6 at a hospital in Denver. He was 89.

The cause was complications from a fall, his family said.

In the 1950’s, Dr. Puck began the research for growing human cells that underpinned his studies of genetic mutations and the origins of cancers. Using a technique similar to one for growing bacterial cultures, he and his students at the University of Colorado placed a layer of feeder cells in a medium of calf serum in petri dishes to nurse cells of the skin, spleen and bone marrow.

For his work in propagating cells, Dr. Puck received an Albert Lasker Award for Basic Medical Research in 1958.

Cultures of human cells had been grown before the experiment, but Dr. Puck’s method, and the incubator he developed, worked rapidly and proved to be particularly fruitful.
With a ready source of cells, Dr. Puck performed groundbreaking experiments, exposing the cell colonies to different levels of radiation.

In 1957, he suggested that earlier studies of radiation safety, based on research involving fruit flies and other subjects, had underestimated the dangers to humans.

Sidney Altman, a professor of molecular, cellular and developmental biology at Yale, said Dr. Puck succeeded in showing that “even low levels of radiation can cause mutations in human cells.”

Dr. Altman, a recipient of the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1989 and a former student in Dr. Puck’s department, added: “He did useful work in making mutagens, which cause mutations, and characterizing them. But even more, he spawned a whole group of people who went on to study human mutations.”

Dr. Altman and others credited Dr. Puck with helping to resolve a significant debate, settling the question of the number of chromosomes found in the human cell. In the early 1950’s, the standard was 48, but research by Joe Hin Tjio, Albert Levan and others later set the number at 46.

Dr. Puck helped organize an international conference in 1960 that ultimately established the existence of 23 pairs of chromosomes, for a total of 46, as described by what came to be known as the Denver classification system.

Dr. Puck’s most recent work, which continued until this month, involved the detection and measurement of environmental sources of cancers and cancer clusters.

David Patterson, a geneticist and president of the Eleanor Roosevelt Institute at the University of Denver, said Dr. Puck looked for chromosomal changes as markers for mutations and had been devising a system for checking soil, water, chemicals and other elements for their capacity to cause genetic changes.

For six decades, Dr. Puck taught at the University of Colorado, where he was chairman of the department of biophysics from 1948 to 1967. He was also the founding director of the Eleanor Roosevelt Institute, which studies cancer, diabetes and other diseases.

Theodore Thomas Puck was born in Chicago. He earned an undergraduate degree and a doctorate in physical chemistry from the University of Chicago.

The American Society for Cell Biology awarded him its E. B. Wilson Medal in 1984.
Dr. Puck was a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and the Institute of Medicine.

He is survived by his wife of 59 years, the former Mary Hill. The couple lived in Denver.
Dr. Puck is also survived by three daughters, Dr. Laurel Northup, a psychiatrist, and Dr. Jennifer Puck, a geneticist, both of Bethesda, Md., and Dr. Stirling Puck, also a geneticist, of Santa Fe, N.M.; and by seven grandchildren.