In Memoriam: Lynn Margulis

Lynn Margulis, a biologist whose work on the genesis of new types of cells revolutionized our understanding of evolution, died at her home in Amherst, Massachusetts on November 22, after suffering a stroke. The Washington Post called Margulis, who was 73, “a rebel within the realm of science,” pointing to her determined efforts to overturn accepted paradigms in biology as evidence of an original mind and a pioneering spirit.

Only two years after completing her doctorate, Margulis surprised the scientific community by challenging the idea that random mutation was the only force driving evolutionary change; the first article in which she presented her theory was rejected by 15 journals before appearing in the Journal of Theoretical Biology in 1967. Margulis studied microorganisms and bacteria, proving that the mutually beneficial relationships that formed between less complex prokaryotic cells might allow them to combine to create new, eukaryotic cells with nuclei in a process called symbiogenesis. In spite of the initial skepticism of her colleagues, Margulis’s findings appeared as her first book, Origin of Eukaryotic Cells, which was published by Yale University Press in 1970.

Over the next four decades, Margulis continued to write on cell evolution and the genesis of new species. In 1990, she published Origins of Sex: Three Billion Years of Genetic Recombination, “an evolutionary detective story that unravels the mystery and history of the origin of sex” from microorganisms to more complex forms of life, which she co-wrote with her son, science writer Dorion Sagan.

Margulis graduated from the University of Chicago at eighteen, then went on to earn her masters and doctorate before eventually joining the faculty at Boston University, and then at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, where she held the title of distinguished university professor of geosciences. She married and divorced well-known astronomer Carl Sagan, whom she met on a stairway at the University of Chicago, and chemist Thomas N. Margulis, mothering two children with each man. “It’s not humanly possible to be a good wife, a good mother and a first-class scientist,” Margulis once said, “…something has to go.”

There is no doubt that Margulis was a first-class scientist; she was elected to the National Academy of Sciences in 1983, awarded the National Medal of Science in 1999, and her papers are to be permanently archived in the Library of Congress. Yet even after the scientific establishment had accepted her theories about symbiogenesis, Margulis continued to provoke debate with her support of James E. Lovelock’s Gaia theory, which posits that the entire earth functions like a living organism, with the animate and inanimate worlds self-regulating the conditions that allow for its perpetuation. As ever, Margulis didn’t back down in the face of opposition. As she told Discover magazine in an interview earlier this year, “I don’t consider my ideas controversial. I consider them right.”

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