October 10, 1998
Joseph F. Speyer, 72, Geneticist Who Advanced Study of Mutation
By FORD BURKHART for the NY Times, and updated by David Speyer, June 2009
Dr. Joseph F. Speyer, a molecular geneticist at the University of Connecticut whose early work on mutant genes helped build the foundation for modern molecular genetics and biotechnology, died on Oct. 2 at his home in Willington, Conn. He was 72.
The cause was heart failure, his colleagues said.
In the 1960s, while working at the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory on Long Island, Speyer made important discoveries about the replication and mutation of genes.
Then, the process of DNA replication and mutation was not well understood, said Dr. Arthur Chovnick, a colleague at the University of Connecticut.
By studying how genes mutated, Speyer found that an enzyme called polymerase played a central role in correcting errors and thus prevented many mutations that occurred during replication of the DNA strands within the cell.
In the late 1950s, Speyer’s work at New York University was part of the early effort to unlock the genetic code, Chovnick said.
Editor’s note: See http://profiles.nlm.nih.gov/JJ/B/B/G/Z/_/jjbbgz.pdf
This is one of several papers he and his colleagues published regarding the breaking of the genetic code. His team was the first to break the code (but not the first to publish).
Joseph Speyer was born in Eisenach, Germany, in 1926. In 1939, his family came under threat from the Nazi government and he fled to England with his father and brother.
He attended school in Leicester, England, and studied at London University. After the war, he worked for the U.S. Army as a cryptanalyst and immigrated to America in 1947.
He received his BS in chemistry and PhD in biochemistry from the University of Utah. Speyer taught at the New York University School of Medicine from 1957 to 1964, when he became a senior staff investigator at the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory. In 1967, he joined the Department of Molecular and Cell Biology at the University of Connecticut.
His marriage to Anne Mattison ended in divorce.
He is survived by his companion, Ruth Piuck; two sons, David, of Mongomery County Maryland, and Peter, of Salt Lake City; three daughters, Julie Speyer of Natick, Mass., Katherine Schieffelin of Philidelphia, PA., and Jane Speyer of Portland, Oregon; a brother, George, of New Barnet, Hertfordshire, England; a sister, Hannah Simon of Berlin; and seven grandchildren.