Nobel Prize-winning scientist Donald Glaser, who packed three substantial careers into one lifetime, died at his Berkeley home on Feb. 28. He was 86.
Glaser, a professor emeritus of molecular and cell biology at UC Berkeley, was perhaps best known for his bubble chamber, which allowed scientists to track elementary particles as they moved through liquid. For that invention, he was awarded the 1960 Nobel Prize for physics. But he quickly segued into the emerging field of biotechnology and later turned to neurobiology.
"He was a very important physicist," said his friend Herbert Steiner, UC Berkeley professor emeritus of physics. "He was interested in real things and practical things. He had extremely broad interests."
Born in Cleveland, Glaser received degrees in physics and math from Case Institute of Technology. In 1950, he received doctorates in both subjects at Cal Tech -- where he subsisted on a $600-a-year job as a teacher's assistant and by sleeping for free on an open porch at the on-campus faculty club.
Two years later, while employed at the University of Michigan, he built the first prototype of his bubble chamber.
"The bubble chamber was an important particle detector, probably the most important in that time," Steiner said. "A lot of new particles that were unknown and unexpected were discovered."
By the time Glaser was awarded the Nobel Prize, at 34, he had joined the faculty at UC Berkeley and was already contemplating his first career shift.
"I don't think I've even seen his Nobel Prize," said his son Will Glaser. "It's probably in a drawer somewhere. It was a seminal achievement, but he didn't look at it that way. His interest was science. The prize was just something that happened along the way."
The prize gave Glaser professional cache, which he used to switch scientific disciplines.
"To do high-energy physics at the time," his son said, "you needed hundreds of scientists and millions of dollars. Working quietly in the lab on a project was his way of doing things."
Turning to what would soon be known as the biotech field, Glaser devised an automated method of quickly running the same experiment hundreds, even thousands of times. In the early 1970s, Glaser, with friends Ronald Cape and Peter Farley, founded Cetus Corp., a company that produced the cancer drugs interleukin and interferon.
More significantly, Cetus also pioneered the genetic engineering process PCR (polymerase chain reaction).
"PCR wasn't his science," Will Glaser said, "but it was his company that did it. On crime shows where they say, 'Run this genetic makeup through the system, and see if you can come up with a match,' he played a big part in that."
Cetus was bought by Chiron Corp., which in turn was purchased by Novartis. So Glaser switched fields once again, to neurobiology. One focus of his studies was how humans perceive motion.
"He was one of the kinder, gentler people I know," said Tomas Poggio, a professor at the McGovern Institute for Brain Research at MIT. "He had the mind of a child -- I mean that as a compliment. He was very open, very fresh. He was continually saying things that made me say, 'I never thought about this.' "
Donald Glaser is survived by his wife Lynn Glaser, daughter Louise Glaser, and son Will Glaser. A memorial service is planned for the spring.
Contact Gary Peterson at 925-952-5053. Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/garyscribe.