May 21, 1929 – March 10, 2011
The distinguished evolutionary biologist Walter M. Fitch died on March 10, 2011, at the age of 81. Born in San Diego, California, on May 21, 1929, Fitch attended the University of California, Berkeley, where he received his bachelor’s degree in chemistry in 1953 and his Ph.D. in comparative biochemistry in 1958.
After a series of postdoctoral appointments, he joined the School of Medicine at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, where he was a professor from 1962 to 1986. He then returned to his native California, spending three years at the University of Southern California before becoming a professor of ecology and evolutionary biology at the University of California, Irvine, in 1989.
A pioneer in molecular evolution, Fitch was proudest of his work on phylogenetics, especially “Construction of phylogenetic trees” (coauthored with E. Margoliash), published in Science in 1967. He was the first president of the Society for Molecular Biology and Evolution and the founding editor-in-chief of its journal Molecular Biology and Evolution. His honors included election to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and the National Academy of Sciences.
A long-time member of NCSE, Fitch was active in efforts to promote the teaching of evolution; he was a member of the working group that produced Evolution, Science, and Society: Evolutionary Biology and the National Research Agenda in 1998, and contributed “Evolution is Fact” to Evolutionary Science and Society: Educating a New Generation (PDF) in 2005, for example.
He was also concerned with creationism, giving a plenary address on “Creation Science: An Oxymoron” to the Southern California Academy of Sciences in 2002; developing a class on creation and evolution at the University of California, Irvine, for students not majoring in biology; and even engaging in public debates with creationists on occasion (see, for example, the report in the Daily Pilot for May 15, 2006).
At the time of his death, he was finishing a book on the creationism/evolution controversy, which NCSE Supporter Richard E. Dickerson of the University of California, Los Angeles, describes as “the final word of a major player in the field”; Logic, Rhetoric, and Science: And Why Creationism Fails at All Three is expected to be published by the University of California Press in 2012.
Walter was a wonderful colleague and friend — I have always been in awe of the way he was endlessly excited by new frontiers of scientific discovery, endlessly enthusiastic about new methods for analyzing molecular evolution. In a contentious field (especially the systematics side of it) he retained friendships on all sides. Walter was a bit of an autodidact, which made his achievements all the more remarkable — the first widely noticed distance matrix method for phylogenies, the algorithm for counting the smallest number of nucleotide substitutions on a given phylogeny, an insightful analysis of the recombination history of tandem gene duplications on a phylogeny, and many more. An anonymous review I wrote of one of his grants started out “Once more, the intrepid Walter Fitch sets forth with his computer …”. I am saddened that he is no longer around to do that, but inspired by his determination to work in the face of declining health. He was a true leader in evolutionary biology.
Dear Francisco and Brandon, Thank you for asking Alyssa Sanchez Cruz to notify me of the May 26 memorial tribute for Walter Fitch. I cannot be there because I have a longstanding commitment to be in Madrid on that date but I appreciate the invitation. Thank you for convening the tribute. Walter was a good friend, and one whom I admired very much. In the early and mid 1990’s, Walter and I found that our morning routines matched: we would be walking to our laboratories at the same time every morning. So we often stopped to talk about whatever was on our minds. Quite often, I would ask Walter for a lesson on the tempo of molecular evolution and how the timing of changes could be understood. Of course, he also told me specifically about mutations in viruses. We would stand there, usually just outside Reines Hall or Rowland Hall, and typically it was chilly in the early morning, at least to me. Evidently, it was never chilly to Walter because he always wore shorts. His pink shorts looked especially comfortable to him when he wore a pink polo shirt with them. I suppose that this uniform represented a celebration for not being in Madison in the winter! Carol and I always felt close to Walter and Chung-Cha and we will miss him very much. With best regards, Ralph Cicerone
Anthony A. James
I thank Walter for his good humor and patience as I learned something of molecular evolution. He was my pre-Google ‘go-to’ guy whenever I had questions, and I admire his willingness to teach when I asked what I now realize were very naïve questions. What astonished me later was just how many of the concepts and how much of the language originated with him. It also was humbling when I realized that one of the worst things in modern biology was molecular biologists talking about evolution! Walter is one of those people who could elicit a smile the instant you saw him. I say ‘is’ because I am looking at his picture now and smiling. His charm is still there. I am honored that I had the opportunity to talk with him and will keep his memory alive by making sure my students know the difference and when to use homology, orthology, paralogy, identity and similarity!
Walter will be sorely missed within the department, both for his effervescent spirit and for his substantial academic contributions. In my opinion, no one has thought or written more clearly about the processes of molecular evolution. He impacted me personally as well, because my desire to teach at UCI was largely due to his presence. Thanks, Walter!