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Holger W. Jannasch

The Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution announces with great sorrow the death September 8, 1998 of Senior Scientist and Honorary Member of the Corporation Holger W. Jannasch at his home in Woods Hole following a long battle with cancer. He was 71.

Holger Windekilde Jannasch was born in Holzminden, Germany, May 23, 1927 and grew up in the eastern province of Silesia. After being drafted into the German military at age 15 and discharged from a short imprisonment by the British in 1945, Holger pursued his childhood dream of becoming a forest ranger by getting a job as a forestry apprentice, starting as a lumberjack. That was a short-lived experiment which ended when he returned to school to complete his secondary education, which had been interrupted by World War II. His first scientific job, as a warden on a bird sanctuary off the German coast, was his introduction both to the ocean and to his future wife, Friederun, who was one of the few visitors to the uninhabited sand bar. He pursued graduate studies at the University of Göttingen and worked as a crew member on fishing steamers in the North Sea and North Atlantic between semesters from 1950 to 1954. His career directions became clear early in his graduate studies through several unexpected opportunities. A brief job at the University’s Zoological Institute, identifying and labeling specimens of deep-sea mollusks from jars broken during wartime bombings, broadened his background in zoology, biology and biochemistry. In 1953 a three-month fellowship to the Zoological Station at Naples, Italy, introduced Holger to the international scientific community. At the Third International Microbiology Congress in Rome that year he met marine microbiologist Claude ZoBell, who invited him to work in his lab at Scripps Institution of Oceanography in La Jolla, CA. This gave him the opportunity to meet Cornelius van Niel of Stanford University’s Hopkins Marine Station, whom Holger later called “the scientist of my life” for guiding his career direction. “He taught me to understand the conduct of science as a privilege and an obligation at the same time, and to see the endless, sometimes frightening, opportunities it offered for accomplishment.”

In 1955 Holger received his doctoral degree in biology from the University of Göttingen. He worked as an assistant scientist at the Max Planck Society from 1956 to 1960, during which time he also held postdoctoral fellow appointments with Claude ZoBell at Scripps Institution of Oceanography from 1957 to 1958 and at the University of Wisconsin from 1958 to 1959. On his way back to Germany he was invited to visit WHOI by Stan Watson, whom he had met at the American Society of Microbiology Meeting. Another visit followed in 1961, during which he met John Ryther, Bostwick Ketchum and Paul Fye, and soon came the offer of a staff position. He later recalled that “Woods Hole impressed me with its smaller, more personal group of scientists and its beautiful New England surroundings. . . the personal touch and liberal research atmosphere I sensed. I was not mistaken, and never regretted my decision.” Holger returned to Germany to complete commitments there, serving as an assistant professor in the Department of Microbiology at the University of Göttingen from 1961 to 1963. He held the position of Privatdozent at the University from 1963 until his death.

Holger Jannasch moved to Woods Hole and joined the WHOI staff in October 1963 as Senior Scientist in the Biology Department. He worked for many years with Carl Wirsen and Steve Molyneaux, whom he called his “two steady teammates”, and mentored dozens of graduate students, postdoctoral fellows and scholars, and visiting researchers from around the world, most recently Andreas Teske from Germany’s Max Planck Institute. He shared his enthusiasm for learning in many ways, among them serving as director of the microbial ecology course at the Marine Biological Laboratory from 1971 to 1980. He continued his long association with MBL, teaching courses in marine microbiology, microbial ecology and microbial diversity and serving as a vital link between the institutions for many years. He was elected a Member of the MBL Corporation in 1970, and to the Corporation of the Sea Education Association in Woods Hole in 1975. Holger also lectured extensively throughout the world; in January 1998 he gave the opening address at the International Congress on Extremophiles in Yokohama, Japan. He maintained a strong relationship with colleagues in Germany through the years, helping to establish the Max Plank Institute for Marine Microbiology in Bremen, dedicated in 1996.

An active sea-going scientist from the beginning of his WHOI career, Holger was a participant or chief scientist on more than 35 oceanographic cruises in the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans and the Mediterranean and Black Seas. His first cruise was aboard Research Vessel Atlantis II in 1964 in the Cariaco Trench, and his last aboard R/V Atlantis in April-May of this year in the Guaymas Basin.

Holger’s research encompassed three major areas, microbial growth kinetics in seawater, effects of low temperature and high pressure, and processes at hydrothermal vents. Jannasch and colleagues conducted the first in situ experiments on microbial decomposition in the deep sea, unexpected research resulting from observations made on a lunch retrieved from the submersible Alvin after the sub was recovered following months on the ocean bottom in 1968-1969. He and coworkers identified the effect of pressure on microbial metabolism and documented the extremely slow rates of microbial decomposition in the deep sea. They designed and developed a variety of highly sophisticated sea-going instruments for collecting, culturing and sampling bacterial populations from deep-sea depths, and developed in situ deep-sea samplers and incubators in addition to pressure systems for work with barophilic bacteria. Their work yielded valuable scientific information about the fragile nature of deep-sea food chains and the use of the ocean as a repository for mankind’s wastes.

The discovery of the deep-sea hydrothermal vents in 1977 opened new areas of research for Jannasch, whose name soon became synonymous with deep sea microbiology. Measurements by Jannasch and colleagues of the growth rates of vent bacteria and the role of chemosynthetic primary production based on the use of sulfur compounds has had major implications for deep sea microbial ecology and potential links to the origin of life on earth. In 1996 Jannasch was honored when a new microorganism, a representative of Archaea, one of the three major life groups on earth, was named for him: Methanococcus jannaschii. This species is one of the few microbes whose entire genome is known. That same year the Institution established the Holger W. Jannasch Chair in recognition of his many accomplishments and contributions to the Institution.

There is hardly an area of microbial ecology that Holger Jannasch has not influenced. He worked extensively in unique environments such as microbial mats and symbioses between animals and bacteria, and studied the microbiology of sulfur oxidation and reduction in the marine environment. He had a unique ability to plan and conduct scientific experiments at sea, using innovative approaches and techniques, and provided many insights and concepts that are now well known within the community of ecological scientists. Holger’s writings are equally well known as he authored or co-authored about 200 publications. One of his last was the invited self-portrait “Small is Powerful: Recollections of a Microbiologist and Oceanographer” reprinted from the Annual Reviews of Microbiology in 1997. Holger remained active in his lab until recent weeks, both in research and in collaborations and contact with colleagues worldwide.

“Science is an adventure, not a career” he once said, and his adventures were many. Holger greatly enjoyed the opportunities his work brought to meet colleagues around the world and to combine his work with traveling. Among his many memorable trips were studies in Lake Kivu in eastern Zaire in 1970, an expedition to the central Tibetan plateau to study high-altitude Tibetan salt lakes as part of a US-Chinese expedition in 1988, and a 1990 trip to Tasmania and Australia for an extensive lecture tour at the invitation of the Australian Society of Microbiology. His sense of joy and spirit of adventure were communicated to all who worked with him. He was always ready to describe and explain his work in fascinating detail and with wonderful humor. He gave generously of both his time and spirit, instilling in many the excitement of scientific discovery and the pursuit of knowledge. As Cornelius van Niel said in a recommendation letter to WHOI Biology Department Chair John Ryther in 1961, “Holger is one of those rare microbiologists.”

Well-known in the international scientific community, Holger Jannasch served on the editorial boards of many scientific journals, including the Journal of Marine Research, Limnology and Oceanography, Applied and Environmental Microbiology, Archives of Microbiology, Marine Biotechnology, and Extremophiles. He also edited several book volumes, including Advances in Aquatic Microbiology and Current Perspectives in High Pressure Biology. He was a member of many professional societies, including the International Association for Theoretical and Applied Limnology, American Society for Microbiology, American Society for Limnology and Oceanography, and the American Association for the Advancement of Science. He was the recipient of many awards, among them the Institutions Henry Bryant Bigelow Medal in Oceanography in 1980, the Fisher Scientific Award in Applied and Environmental Microbiology in 1982, the Cody Award in Ocean Sciences from the Scripps Institution of Oceanography in 1992, and the Fulbright Distinguished Scholar Award in 1992.

A Member of the WHOI Corporation since 1989 and an Honorary Member since 1997, Holger Jannasch was elected a Corresponding Member of the Göttingen Academy of Sciences in 1984, a Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in 1984, a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1987, and a Fellow of the American Academy of Microbiology in 1993. In 1995 he was elected a Foreign Associate of the National Academy of Sciences, a rare honor. Although not a US citizen, Holger found his role of ambassador in US-German scientific matters appealing, and greatly appreciated the flexibility and freedom WHOI offered him as a scientist and the personal liberties living in the United States provided him and his family while he remained tied to his heritage. He had, in his own words, a personally and professionally fulfilled life.

He is survived by his wife, Friederun (Goldschmidt) Jannasch, of Woods Hole, MA; a son, Hans Jannasch, of Monterey, CA, and his wife, Elizabeth; two grandsons, Nicolaus and Benjamin Jannasch, of Monterey, CA; a brother, Niels Jannasch, of Halifax, Nova Scotia; three nieces and nephews, and many relatives in Germany.

Funeral services were held Thursday, September 10, 1998 at noon at Church of the Messiah in Woods Hole, burial followed in the church cemetery.

Donations in Holger Jannasch’s memory may be made to the Church of the Messiah, 22 Church Street, Woods Hole, MA 02543 or to The 300 Committee, 157 Locust Street, Falmouth, MA 02540.