November 27, 2019
Marilyn Farquhar, Ph.D., electron microscopy pioneer and treasured mentor to generations of cell biologists at UC San Diego and beyond, died Saturday, November 23, 2019 in La Jolla, California. She was 91 years old.
Farquhar was Distinguished Professor of Cellular and Molecular Medicine and founding Chair of the Department of Cellular and Molecular Medicine at UC San Diego School of Medicine.
Beginning in the 1950s and working with a new tool of the time — the electron microscope — Farquhar made a series of discoveries that are now part of the canon of cell biology. Among them: novel aspects of cell junctions, multiprotein complexes that link cells to other cells or to the extracellular matrix; endocytosis, the process cells use to transport molecules from outside to inside; cell secretion; the biology of podocytes, filtering cells in kidneys; and G proteins, an important family of proteins that act as molecular switches inside cells. She also applied many of these findings to help unravel the molecular underpinnings of autoimmune kidney diseases.
Raised on a farm in Tulare, Calif., Farquhar was inspired by both her mother, whose own academic ambitions had been cut short by hard times, and a family friend, a woman who ran a pediatrics practice out of her home.
Farquhar started out as a medical student, but when she was told that wasn’t a career for women, she pursued scientific research instead. She received her Ph.D. in Pathology from UC Berkeley in 1955, and completed her postdoctoral education with George Palade, MD, at Rockefeller University in 1962. Farquhar accepted a faculty position at UCSF in 1962, where she started her own research lab.
Farquhar’s independent research focused on using biochemical tracers and microscopy to probe the secretory process in pituitary cells and white blood cells. She went on to provide the first description of crinophagy, the process by which secretory granules are taken up and disposed of in cells, as well as the first insights into the formation of granules in white blood cells.
In 1970, Farquhar returned to Rockefeller, where she was appointed as a Professor of Cell Biology and married Palade. She was Rockefeller’s first female professor. Farquhar and Palade moved to Yale in 1973, where she eventually became Sterling Professor of Cell Biology and Pathology, and helped build a new Department of Cell Biology in the medical school. In 1974, Palade was named co-recipient of the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine.
Farquhar and Palade were recruited to UC San Diego School of Medicine in 1990 to help enhance its reputation as a vibrant powerhouse for basic science by establishing a new Division of Cellular and Molecular Medicine. Farquhar recruited top scientists and helped open up new fields in which they have more recently become leaders, including stem cell research and epigenetics. In 1999, the division was expanded into a full department and Farquhar became the founding Chair of the Department of Cellular and Molecular Medicine, where she nurtured the development of the department’s research and educational programs until she stepped down in 2008.
She was passionate and exacting when it came to her work. Farquhar often said that being a scientist is an absolute privilege — a career unlike any other because you actually get paid to follow your own curiosity.
As a mentor, Farquhar was proud to teach, encourage and support generations of young scientists. She dedicated many years to the Biomedical Sciences Graduate Program at UC San Diego School of Medicine, serving at different times as Chair, Vice Chair, Student Standings, Promotion and Advisory Committee (SPAC) advisor, and member of the executive and planning committees.
Pradipta Ghosh, MD, professor in the Department of Cellular and Molecular Medicine, trained with Farquhar and refers to her as her “academic mother” and “cheerleader.” She says Farquhar “taught me how to ensure longevity in science, survive and thrive doing it, how to nurture a body of work, give birth to a field, build a legacy and grow them all through generations of mentees. She also taught me how to survive the ups and downs, and how to balance science and motherhood. The light she added to the world continues to glow from countless candles she lit. I am just one of those many candles.”
Farquhar continued to teach classes, mentor students and trainees, and run a productive research lab until 2015. Right up until her death, Farquhar continued to serve as Director of the Electron Microscopy Core at UC San Diego School of Medicine.
Farquhar’s efforts garnered her many awards and honors over the years, such as the E.B. Wilson Medal of the American Society of Cell Biology, Homer Smith Medal of the American Society of Nephrology, Distinguished Scientist Medal of the Electron Microscopy Society of America, and Rous-Whipple Award of the American Society for Investigative Pathology. She served as president of American Society of Cell Biology. She was elected to membership in the National Academy of Sciences and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. In 2017, she received the Revelle Medal, UC San Diego’s highest honor recognizing sustained, distinguished and extraordinary service to the campus. Farquhar was to receive the American Society of Investigative Pathology Gold-Headed Cane Award at the society’s national meeting in San Diego in 2020. The award, the society’s highest honor, will be presented posthumously.
Farquhar was there at the very beginning when cell biology was a field in its infancy, and she guided the field throughout her six-decade career. As her long-time friend and colleague Distinguished Professor David Bailey, MD, put it, “Marilyn Farquhar was truly a legend for all time. She was the consummate scientist, colleague, mentor and friend. She was a trailblazer for women in science. She will be sorely missed.”
Farquhar is survived by sons Bruce Farquhar and Doug Farquhar, daughter-in-law Wendy Farquhar and grandchildren Christopher and Brooke.
The Department of Cellular and Molecular Medicine will hold a celebration of life event in the spring.