WILLIAM DAVID McELROY

By Helinski, Donald R. | Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society, March 2005 | Go to article overview

WILLIAM DAVID McELROY


Helinski, Donald R., Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society


WILLIAM DAVID McELROY died 17 February 1999. He not only distinguished himself as an experimentalist in the biological sciences, but through his leadership of several major scientific institutions greatly influenced the development of the basic sciences in the United States. Although his research and training were scientifically based, as the fourth chancellor of the University of California, San Diego, he encouraged the expansion of the arts, humanities, and social sciences on that campus and was very successful in forging links between the university and the San Diego community.

Bill McElroy was born and raised in Rogers, Texas. After graduation from high school he enrolled in Pasadena Junior College-at that time a training ground for football talent for the University of Southern California. He became interested in a scientific and academic career through courses in chemistry and biology at Pasadena. He accepted a football scholarship at Stanford University in 1937 and became a premedical major. Professors L. R. Blinks at Stanford and C. B. van Niel at Stanford profoundly influenced Dr. McElroy's choice of a scientific career. Blinks introduced him to original research and turned him on to graduate studies. It was van Niel, a legendary figure in microbiology, who introduced Bill to the phenomenon of bioluminescence through his studies on luminous bacteria in summer microbiology courses at the Hopkins Marine Station in Pacific Grove. McElroy began to work on radioactive phosphate and was introduced to the key energy compound ATP while taking these courses. At that time the concept of phosphate bond energy had been only recently introduced by European scientists, including Fritz Lipmann and Herman Kalckar. McElroy also was influenced at Stanford by the teaching of George Beadle, one of the great geneticists of the twentieth century. He obtained a master's degree from Reed College in Oregon in 1941 and a doctorate in biochemistry and biology from Princeton University in 1943. When Bill was a graduate student at Princeton, E. Newton Harvey, the father of bioluminescence in the United States, Frank Johnson, and Henry Eyring introduced him to photosynthetic bacteria and deepened his interest in bioluminescence.

After completing his Ph.D. studies at Princeton, Bill McElroy returned to Stanford to do postdoctoral work with George Beadle. In 1947 he accepted the position of assistant professor at Johns Hopkins University, where he remained as a faculty member for twenty-three years. In the summer of 1947 he initiated an independent research program in bioluminescence, a decision that would launch him on an illustrious scientific career in the biological sciences. In view of the plentiful supply of the firefly, Photinus pyralis, during the summer months in Baltimore, it is not surprising that he was attracted to this insect as a major source of luminous organisms for his research. During the summer months, McElroy recruited large numbers of young individuals and students to collect fireflies. Some fireflies were used immediately; the lanterns of others were excised and frozen for future work. Bill and his students elucidated the mechanism of light emission by the firefly, including the key roles of the enzyme luciferase and the compounds ATP and luciferin in this process. This was not only a fundamental discovery in bioluminescence and bioenergetics; it also provided a sensitive method for the quantitative measurement of the high-energy compound ATP in biological systems. The use of the firefly bioluminescence system in the development of diagnostic assays and in basic gene expression studies continues to grow to this day, particularly with the availability of a recombinant DNA source of the firefly luciferase. It is perhaps fitting that the firefly luciferase gene was constructed by Bill McElroy's wife, Marlene DeLuca, and collaborators at the University of California, San Diego, using the recombinant DNA technology. …

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