Carolyn R. Bertozzi ’88, winner of the 2022 Nobel Prize in Chemistry, first heard Harvard Medical School emeritus professor Christopher T. Walsh ’65 speak when she was a graduate student attending an American Chemical Society meeting.
Bertozzi recalled the speakers giving “pompous” lectures that were hard to follow.
But when Walsh took the stage, “it was a total inversion,” she said. Bertozzi said he picked the research project of one of his postdoctoral fellows at the time, introduced it as a “mystery we wanted to understand,” and led the audience through the hypothesis, data, and lessons learned along the way.
“That has been the model that I’ve used ever since then,” Bertozzi said. “That was more than 30 years ago, and that lesson has been a guiding principle for me. And so when I give lectures, that’s what I try to do — exactly what Chris did in that moment.”
Walsh, a renowned biochemist, died on Jan. 10 at the age of 78.
He received his undergraduate degree in biology from Harvard College and his Ph.D. in life science from Rockefeller University. In 1987, HMS recruited Walsh from MIT, where he had established himself as a leading researcher in the field of biological chemistry.
Throughout his career, Walsh made significant contributions to the field of biochemistry, particularly in the areas of enzyme function, metabolic pathways, and antibiotic biosynthesis. Under his guidance as chair of the Department of Biological Chemistry and Molecular Pharmacology, HMS became a leader in structural biology. His work contributed to the development of novel antibiotics and advancing knowledge of enzyme structure.
HMS Dean George Q. Daley ’82, who served as a faculty member alongside Walsh in the BCMP Department, recognized Walsh’s work at MIT, HMS, and the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute in a Jan. 12 statement.
“Everyone around him aspired to work harder and be more rigorous because he respected excellence and inspired excellence in others,” Daley wrote.
Stephen C. Blacklow ’83, who currently occupies Walsh’s former role as the chair of the BCMP Department, wrote in an email that Walsh had a “tremendous influence” on many people’s careers, including Blacklow’s own.
“He was well-loved by many in our community for his generosity of spirit, and wry sense of humor, and was deeply appreciated for his intellectual rigor and tireless dedication to excellence,” he added.
Blacklow wrote that Walsh’s death was “so tragic, and so sudden.”
“I still keep hoping it’s just a nightmare from which I will soon awaken,” he wrote.
Walsh’s approach to research allowed him to make connections between seemingly unrelated areas of study.
David E. Golan ’75, dean for Research Operations and Global Programs at HMS, said Walsh proposed the “interesting experiment” of combining the departments of biological chemistry and pharmacology, which resulted in the BCMP Department.
“He had an uncanny knack for choosing people with tremendous potential and for seeing what the scientific fields were going to be that were going to make a difference,” Golan said. “As department chair, he really transformed both departments.”
Golan said Walsh helped strengthen the fields of structural biology and chemical biology as well as HMS’ research in the field of chemistry.
“He made a concerted effort when he came to hire the best structural biologists in the world and the best chemical biologists in the world,” Golan said. “Chris saw the future and he took active steps to make sure that we were well-represented with people who would be at the cutting edge in terms of their research as well as recruiting students.”
In addition to his research, Walsh’s colleagues said he was also a dedicated educator. Bertozzi, a colleague of Walsh during his time as an adjunct professor at Stanford, called him a “consummate scholar, teacher, and mentor,” pointing to the numerous textbooks he wrote.
“All of them have been widely used and highly influential in educating the next generation of scientists,” Bertozzi said. “He has provided us with this incredible arsenal of beautifully-digested and synthesized information so that we can teach our students about the kind of work that he was interested in.”
JoAnne Stubbe, who shared the 2010 Welch Prize in Chemistry with Walsh, said Walsh’s model of teaching was “the greatest gift” he gave her.
“From looking, watching him do it, he taught me how to teach,” Stubbe said. “I didn’t know anybody that had that ability to take all this complex stuff and turn it into something that people get really interested in.”
Bertozzi and Kari C. Nadeau, a professor of medicine and pediatrics at Stanford University, said Walsh was an advocate for women in science.
“It was challenging sometimes for women to find positions where they would have good mentorship in science and have someone to help support their career aspirations,” Bertozzi said. “Chris Walsh was a person who had many women in his lab, and many of them he advocated for and are now very famous in their own right.”
Nadeau — who was mentored by Walsh as an M.D. Ph.D. student at HMS — described him as an “extraordinary scholar, a visionary leader, and a genuine human being.”
She recalled how Walsh would greet his mentees at the laboratory each morning.
“I’d always get to hear his footsteps first, and I knew that the next thing that I would see in the morning is a bright smile coming in and asking, ‘How are things going?’” Nadeau said. “I absolutely love that memory because it’s so special that a lab mentor will take the time every day to come down the hallway and meet with us.”
—Staff writer Dorcas Y. Gadri can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
—Staff writer Ammy M. Yuan can be reached at email@example.com.