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June 03, 2014

Obituary for Walter Gehring (1939 – 2014)

The Biozentrum is mourning the death of Walter Gehring, Professor emeritus of Developmental Biology and Genetics at the University of Basel.

Prof. emeritus Walter Gehring († 29 May 2014)

With Prof. Walter Gehring, who died on May 29th, 2014, following the injuries resulting from a severe car accident, we have lost not only a great scientist but also an outstanding human being and an influential mentor. His enthusiasm for all aspects of science and his visionary ideas have motivated and inspired generations of young scientists at the Biozentrum. He has founded a wide scientific family and always kept close contact with his former collaborators throughout the world. 

Walter Gehring was born on March 20th, 1939, in Zurich and studied Zoology at that city’s university. He completed his PhD thesis with Ernst Hadorn on antenna development in the fruit fly Drosophila in 1965 and, after working with his mentor for another two years, joined Alan Garen as a postdoctoral fellow at Yale University. After being promoted in rapid succession to Assistant and then to Associate Professor of Developmental Biology at Yale, he joined the newly founded Biozentrum in 1972 as a Professor of Cell Biology. 

Gehring’s work has focused on the mechanisms by which the cells of an embryo acquire their specific functions and their proper place, ultimately forming the diverse organs within the adult organism. His favorite model organism has always been the fly Drosophila because its anatomy and embryonic development are well known and its genetic makeup can be precisely modified by classical crosses or modern gene technology. These investigations culminated in the discovery of a specific DNA sequence, the homeobox, typical of a group of regulatory genes which control a large number of subordinate genes and thus play a key role in the development of all organisms. During the past two decades, Walter Gehring and his team succeeded in working out a detailed description of eye development, which showed that the apparently diverse eyes of insects and vertebrates have evolved from a common structure.

Gehring’s fundamental work caught the attention of his colleagues around the world who presented him with many prestigious prizes such as the Jeantet Prize for Medicine (1987), the March of Dimes Prize in Developmental Biology (1997), the Kyoto Prize for Basic Science (2000) as well as the Balzan Prize for Developmental Biology (2002). In 2010, he was honored with the Grand Cross of the Order of Merit with Star of the Federal Republic of Germany. Gehring also acted as Secretary General of the European Molecular Biology Organization (EMBO) and as president of the International Society for Developmental Biologists. Many academies, including the US National Academy of Science and the Royal Society of London, had elected him as an external member.

We are deeply saddened by Walter Gehring’s untimely death and join his family in mourning. We will always keep Prof. Gehring in the highest esteem and remember his life with the utmost gratitude. A public commemoration ceremony will be held on June 27th, 3 pm, in the Peterskirche, Basel.