UCLA and plant biology lost an important member of their respective communities with the death of Bernard O. Phinney of heart failure on April 22, 2009, in Los Angeles. Bernie was well known to ASPB members, attending the meetings almost every year. With his red hair, beret atop his head, and a twinkle in his eye, he was always easy to spot.
Bernie was born July 29, 1917, in Superior, Wis. He attended the University of Minnesota, earning a BA in 1940 and a PhDin 1946 with botanist Ernst C. Abbe, who served as his adviser. While a PhD student,Bernie heard a seminar given by George W.Beadle, which so impressed him that he went to Caltech to work with Beadle as a postdoctoral researcher from 1946 to 1948. It was this experience that led Bernie to do the experiments that contributed in a major way toward understanding the function and metabolism of gibberellins. His observations were some of the first to show that this class of plant hormones, which affect such critical developmental phenomena as seed germination,stem elongation, and fertilization, could be understood using a biochemical genetics approach.
In 1947, Bernie was hired as an instructor at UCLA and became a full professor in1961. It was during his early years at UCLA that he began to test the concept of linkage between phenotype and genotype. In this research, he showed that dwarf mutants of maize became tall if given an external application of gibberellin, showing that dwarfness was linked to a deficiency of this hormone.Because maize dwarfness segregates as a Mendelian recessive, the results strongly suggested that the mutation occurred in a single gene. Th is seminal research paper was published in 1956 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, and the findings were so important that they were later incorporated into textbooks, along with the classic picture of dwarf maize before and after gibberellin treatment. A subsequent paper in 1957 in the same journal, with Charles A. West, Mary Ritzel, and Peter M.Neely of UCLA, identified gibberellin-like substances from a broad range of families of angiosperms. Although Japanese scientists had already discovered gibberellin production by the fungus, Bernie and his graduate student, Calvin Spector, identified a gene controlling a step in the synthesis of gibberellins by Gibberella fujikuroi, the causative agent of “foolish seedling disease.” These two papers set the stage for Bernie’s lifelong ambition of combining chemistry, genetics,and physiology to answer questions about gibberellin. He and his coworkers, many from the U.K., such as Jake MacMillan and Clive Spray, or from Japan, including Nobutaka Takahashi, Saburo Tamura, and Masayuki Katsumi, elucidated the various biochemical pathways required for the synthesis of a number of distinct gibberellins.
Bernie earned numerous awards during his career including a Research Medal from the International Plant Growth Substances Association (1982) and the Stephen Hales Award from ASPB (1984). In 1985, he was selected to the U.S. National Academy of Sciences. Bernie received a Certificate of Merit (1986) and a Centennial Award (2007) from the Botanical Society of America and was elected Honorary Foreign Member of the Japanese Society of Chemical Regulation of Plants (1988). He served as president of ASPB from 1989 to 1990, and in 2007, he was honored as a member of the inaugural class of ASPB Fellows. Bernie was awarded an Honorary DSc from the University of Bristol in the U.K. in 1989, and a Research Fellowship from the Japanese Society for the Promotion of Science in 1991. The honorary DSc degree from Bristol meant that Bernie could wear a bright red robe and black tam o’shanter with a gold tassel for academic events. Indeed, Bernie wore his red robes for every UCLA graduation that he attended.
Bernie become professor emeritus at UCLA in 1988 but continued his research and outreach activities. Well into his 90s, he came to the UCLA Plant Growth Center almost daily, continuing his quest to understand the physiology and biochemistry of plants. He spent a great deal of time both in the greenhouse and on the third floor of the life sciences building, where he moved after spending most of his career in the botany building, talking with students and postdocs,writing them letters of recommendation,telling them anecdotes about science, and dispensing advice. Maskit Maymon, who earned her PhD in Chentao Lin’s lab, wrote after hearing about Bernie’s death, that this is “truly a great loss. I will miss his visits to the Lin lab, his interest in my research, his philosophy on life, and his love not only for smoked salmon in particular, but also for life in general.” Steve Knowles, a postdoctoral researcher in Elaine Tobin’s lab, finds that he”misses Dr. Phinney greatly.” Many people at UCLA miss Bernie—faculty, postdocs, and students—but also many staff members who were often the recipient of an in-bloom Phalenopsis or an ear-to-ear smile.
His wife Jean, four children—Scott Phinney, Katcha Burnett, Peter Phinney, and David Phinney—and eight grandchildren survive him. The Phinney family held a memorial service for Bernie at their home in Los Angeles. Contributions in Bernie’s memory can be sent to the Bernard and Jean Phinney Graduate Fellowship in Plant Molecular Biology, University of Minnesota Foundation, 200 Oak Street SE, Suite 500,Minneapolis, MN 55455.
When I remember Bernie, I remember many things, but I particularly recall his broad smile and his love for plants. He enjoyed growing ferns and orchids in his home greenhouse, but he had many other interests as well. He was enthusiastic about skiing, fishing, going out for sushi, and listening to classical music, oft en while driving around L.A. in his fiery red convertible with the top down. Above all, in his retirement, Bernie loved being around students. When Bernie came into my office to “bend my ear,”if a student stopped by to talk, he would always end our conversation and give the student priority. “He became as good a friend, as good a master, and as good a man,as the good old city knew, or any other good old city, town, or borough, in the good old world.”
University of California