Esteemed Professor Passes Away

Courtesy of the Fitch Family

Remember the man who used to walk among us, the name that now echoes through the endless halls of memory, the towering intellect, the affable personality. Dr. Walter Fitch, emeritus professor of ecology and evolutionary biology at UC Irvine passed away in his sleep at his home in University Hills on March 11, 2011 at the age of 81. He is survived by his wife, four children and several grandchildren.

Professor Fitch joined UCI’s ecology and evolutionary biology department in 1989 after three years at the University of Southern California, and nearly 25 years at the University of Wisconsin, where he began his career as an associate professor. During his time at UCI, Professor Fitch worked with the Center for Disease Control (CDC).

“He did a lot of work on the flu virus while at UCI with the CDC,” said Professor Brandon Gaut, one of Professor Fitch’s colleagues. “He used molecular phylogenics to predict future mutations in the virus.”

In the 1960s, molecular phylogenics was an emerging field, and Professor Fitch was a young scientist looking to make his mark. On Jan. 20, 1967, he published a paper titled, “Construction of Phylogenic Trees” with Emanuel Margoliash in the journal “Science.” The paper marked a major breakthrough in molecular evolution. Before the 1950s, few biologists had explored the possibility of using biochemical differences between different species to study evolution.

The established evolutionary biologists expressed their doubts that a molecular approach could be used to effectively study evolution. The principles of organismal biology laid down by Charles Darwin were under attack. This struggle between evolutionary biologists and molecular biologists, between the old and the new, was dubbed “the molecular wars” by Harvard biologist Edward O. Wilson.

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The Tree of Life:

Fitch’s and Margoliash’s 1967 “Construction of Phylogenic Trees” introduced the Fitch-Margoliash method, which allowed biologists to more accurately predict relationships between species. Suddenly, biologists were able to construct branching diagrams showing how different species related based on similarities and differences in their physical and genetic makeup. By using phylogenic trees, biologists could trace species sets back to their common ancestor. Darwin’s famous Tree of Life was stronger and larger than ever.

“He’s the one who figured out the way to use protein and DNA sequence data to construct phylogenic trees,” Gaut said. “Many of the terms used all around the world came from Walter. He’s the father of molecular phylogenetics.”

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The Teacher:

In addition to his weighty contributions to molecular biology, Professor Fitch was a dedicated teacher who worked tirelessly to impart his knowledge to students.

“It’s not often that we teach a course on molecular evolution,” said Professor Gaut as he recalled his experience teaching a course with Professor Fitch. “It’s not often that you get to take a course from a giant in the field.”

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Legacy:

Professor Fitch was born on May 21, 1929 in San Diego, and attended UC Berkeley where he received his bachelor’s degree in chemistry in 1953 and his doctorate in comparative biochemistry in 1958. In addition to his positions at the University of Wisconsin, USC and UCI, Fitch was also a member of the National Academy of Sciences, the American Philosophical Society, the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the National Center for Science Education, a foreign member of the Linnean Society in London and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. In addition, Professor Fitch was the first president of the Society of Molecular Biology and Evolution and was the founding editor-in-chief of its journal “Molecular Biology and Evolution.”

In addition, Professor Fitch was also concerned with creationism. He developed a class at UCI on creation and evolution, and engaged in public debates with creationists. At the time of his passing, Professor Fitch was finishing a book on creationism and evolution titled, “Logic, Rhetoric, and Science: And Why Creationism Fails at All Three.” The book is expected to be published by the University of California Press in 2012.

“[Fitch’s] reputation goes far beyond this campus,” Gaut said. “When you have someone on campus of this stature, it enhances the stature of the campus and the visibility of the [biology] program. Plus, he was a really nice guy … a fun guy, very approachable. He was very encouraging to young people. I was impressed by his patience, and his dedication to impart information to students. He really invested in young scientists.”