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March 29: Ruth Sager

Lawrence Bush
March 29, 2010

ruthsager.125Geneticist Ruth Sager, who conducted innovative research into the genetics of cancer cells and into cytoplasmic (non-Mendelian) genetics, died on this date in 1997 at the age of 79. Sager worked as a researcher but was unable to obtain a faculty position until the age of 48; from 1966 to 1975 she was a professor at Hunter College, and in 1995 she became professor of genetics at Harvard Medical School, among the first women to gain a full professorship at Harvard even that late date. Her research accomplishments included discovering a separate genetic system outside the cell nucleus that influences heredity; devising the first human cell lines and cultures that enabled comparison of normal cells and cancer cells; proposing and uncovering the role of multiple and accelerated mutations in the evolution of cancer cells; proposing (as early as 1974) that genetic defects could be corrected by transferring DNA into cells; discovering many insights about the mechanics of genetic inheritance; and establishing the basis for in vitro-inherited drug resistance. Her many innovative discoveries “demonstrated vision, insight and determination,” wrote one biographer, “to develop novel scientific concepts in the face of established dogmas.”Sager described herself as “probably the happiest person I know.”
“Science is very demanding. You have to really love it. Science is a way of life. . . . It really gets to the very core of your existence. It is much like being an artist or a dancer.” —Ruth Sager

​​​​Lawrence Bush edited Jewish Currents from 2003 until 2018. He is the author of Bessie: A Novel of Love and Revolution and Waiting for God: The Spiritual Explorations of a Reluctant Atheist, among other books. His new volume of illustrated Torah commentaries, American Torah Toons 2, is scheduled for publication this year.