When Dan Nathans talked, people listened. One way or another, almost every speaker made that point at a Jan. 5 memorial service for the distinguished scientist, beloved teacher and mentor, consummate university citizen and "extraordinarily gentle and modest man."
Edward D. Miller, now dean and CEO of Johns Hopkins Medicine, remembered the contentious department chiefs' meeting where he first met Nathans. The soft-spoken Nobel laureate, he recalled, injected common sense and humanity into a heated discussion, with an appeal on behalf of Hopkins values and the integrity of the institution.
"Everyone in the room felt it was almost like Johns Hopkins himself talking," Miller told a Turner Auditorium crowded with Nathans' family, colleagues, friends and former students, who came from across the country and from as far away as Israel.
Thomas J. Kelly, director of the Department of Molecular Biology and Genetics, said Nathans never forced advice on anyone but, when asked, responded with "pure gold." Kelly, who met Nathans in 1970, quoted a colleague's observation that Nathans spoke with the "highest signal-to-noise ratio" of anyone he knew.
"Even though he was only three years my senior, he was more of a father figure to me than an equal," professor emeritus Hamilton O. Smith said. Smith, one of two men with whom Nathans shared the Nobel Prize in medicine in 1978, said he often sought out Nathans' advice on scientific and other issues. "He was, in many ways, a second father to me," echoed former graduate student Se-Jin Lee, himself now a faculty member in the Department of Molecular Biology and Genetics that Nathans once led.
Nathans, who joined the Hopkins faculty in 1962, died Nov. 16, 1999, after a career that touched the university in ways large and small. As interim president in 1995 and 1996, said former trustee chairman Morris W. Offit, Nathans rejected the role of caretaker and worked tirelessly to turn chaos to consensus and to create a new governance structure for Johns Hopkins Medicine.
"In retrospect, Dan's 15 months in the presidency may be viewed as one of the most extraordinary periods in our history," Offit said.
But with wisdom and tenacity, there came also an extraordinarily humane touch, Lee recalled. Who else but Dan Nathans, he said, would not only enjoy a snapshot of a colleague's infant son but also ask for a copy?
As the service ended, once again Dan Nathans talked. Once again, people listened. Intently.
"Please remember to care for the whole person," he said on a videotape of his 1997 talk to School of Medicine graduates. "Medicine is a noble profession. It's much more than applied science, and it's much more than the bottom line."