George Streisinger

George Streisinger was many things: refugee; anti-war protestor; amateur magician; and, of course, the first person to successfully clone a vertebrate.

But while many University of Oregon students may not know his story, many know the building that bears his name: Streisinger Hall, part of the Lorry I. Lokey Science Complex.

Born Gyorgy Streisinger to Jewish parents Margit and Andor in Budapest, Hungary, in 1927, Streisinger was diagnosed with a heart murmur as a child and wasn’t allowed to play sports. Instead, he collected butterflies with his brother, Ervin, and developed a love of the natural world.

In 1938, the Hungarian government passed a number of anti-Jewish laws, modeled on Germany’s Nuremberg Laws. Hungary limited companies to a maximum of 20 percent Jewish employees, banned them from working for the government, limited theaters and movie studios to a maximum of 6 percent Jewish employees, took away the Jewish right to vote, and banned intermarriage.

With the dark shadow of Nazism looming, Ervin was the first to leave Hungary, emigrating to New York in October 1938 and joining the army soon after. Andor left one month later, and Gyorgy and Margit followed in March 1939. The family was torn apart almost as soon as Gyorgy and Margit arrived thoughthe day after they docked, Andor was hospitalized; he died two months later of stomach cancer.

Hungary descended into chaos during World War II. More than 100,000 Jews were forced into labor, and more than 40,000 were killed as a result. The Nazis invaded Hungary in March 1944, and two months later began deporting Hungarian Jews to Auschwitz. In an eight-week span, more than half of Hungary's 800,000 Jews were sent to the camp; in October of that year, the Arrow Cross political party gained power and oversaw the murder of thousands more Jews on the banks of the Danube River.

More than 4,300 miles away from his homeland, safe in New York, George Streisinger was growing up quickly. While Margit provided for the family with a tailoring business, George took over cooking duties and even planned his own bar mitzvah. While a student at the High School of Science in the Bronx, he co-authored a paper on fruit fly courtship; at just 16 he enrolled in Cornell University’s School of Agriculture. He spent his summers researching at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory, and later a full academic year working on a farm. By the time he was 21 he was already the author of a number of scholarly articles, publishing the findings of research he had conducted—though he was also a two-time dropout, in part because the ardent pacifist refused to join the ROTC and repeatedly had a zero added to his grades.

Streisinger married Lotte, a genetics classmate at Cornell, and by 1958 they were living in Cambridge, England, with their two daughters, Cory and Lisa. At Cambridge, Streisinger worked alongside Francis Crick, who just five years earlier had, with James Watson, famously discovered the double helix structure of DNA.
George Streisinger in his lab

The Streisingers returned to New York a year later, and George accepted a teaching position at Brandeis University in Waltham, Massachusetts, while also once again conducting research at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory—a lab home to eight Nobel prize-winning researchers, including James Watson. Streisinger did not spend long in the Northeast though, as Aaron Novick and Frank Stahl—respectively one of the founders of molecular biology and a former member of the Manhattan Project, and the researcher who proved that each strand of DNA is a template for the production of a new strand—recruited him to join their emerging department at the University of Oregon.

To convince the Streisingers to move west, Novick and wife Jane took Lotte and George horseback riding, and Lotte—a potter who later went on to establish Eugene’s Saturday Market—spent a day in a local potter’s studio. The Streisingers quickly fell in love with the Pacific Northwest lifestyle, and in 1960 moved to Eugene and bought a log cabin on Spencer's Butte. There, they raised (among other things) ducks, chickens, goats, and a horse, and George spent his summer weekends as a goat judge at county fairs. When he wasn’t judging livestock he was performing magic shows at children's birthday parties—he often bought magic tricks when he traveled—or cooking.

"He cooked a whole boar outside, and half a lamb," said Lotte. "For Christmas presents for friends he'd make a Hungarian seven-layer cake, and would give half or a whole one to various people."

Streisinger was also very politically active, and vocally opposed the Vietnam War while stopping the UO from conducting secret war department research. In addition, he was among a group that successfully restricted the use of herbicides in reforestation. 

But Streisinger Hall isn’t named Streisinger Hall in honor of “George Streisinger, war protester;” Novick and Stahl did not recruit him to the UO due to his reputation for brilliant magic tricks.

George Streisinger was a brilliant geneticist, and the work he conducted at the University of Oregon paved the way for geneticists worldwide. He built the first zebrafish facility on Franklin Boulevard, on the banks of the Willamette River, and spent a decade conducting pure research without publishing a single paper. When he did publish, though, the world took note. In 1981, 15 years before Dolly the sheep made international fame by becoming the world’s first cloned mammal, Streisinger made history by becoming the first person to clone a vertebrate. By cloning zebrafish, Streisinger established the animal as a prime choice for genetic research, and established the UO as one of the nation’s prime sites for molecular biology research. Why zebrafish, though? The fish are easy to house and care for; have backbones, unlike other commonly used research organisms; and have a genetic makeup similar to humans.

“The presence of a backbone signifies the presence of a brain, a spinal cord, optic nerves and a vast network of peripheral nerves, making the zebra fish an ideal organism for studying human disorders,” wrote Eric Tucker in a 2011 edition of Cascade.

Now, more than 500 labs around the world use zebrafish in their research, and many of the strains he developed are being used globally to find solutions to medical concerns. Among the genetic issues researchers at the UO are using zebrafish to find cures or treatments for are Usher syndrome, the leading cause of deaf-blindness in humans; and Fanconi anemia, a rare genetic disease that, incidentally, claimed the lives of two of former UO president Dave Frohnmayer’s daughters.

In 1972, Streisinger was named a Guggenheim Fellow, an award given annually to researchers who have “demonstrated exceptional capacity for productive scholarship.” Three years later, he became only the second Oregonian to be selected a member of the National Academy of Sciences. He had a reputation for always being willing to help his students wherever and whenever he could, especially foreign students struggling to adapt to life in America (and the paperwork that comes with it). His career was tragically cut short though when, three years after publishing his groundbreaking paper on zebrafish cloning, Streisinger—who had once been denied the opportunity to play sports due to a heart condition—suffered a heart attack during the final exam of a scuba diving class he was taking, and died.

The year after Streisinger's passing, the UO began planning a new science complex. Ground was broken in 1987, and in 1989 the complex, funded primarily by a Department of Energy grant secured by former UO student and Oregon governor Victor Atiyeh, was dedicated. Streisinger Hall, part of the new science complex, opened its doors to students in 1990 and has been educating young scientists ever since.

The buildings of the Lokey Science Complex are adorned with busts of famous scientists; for example, walking through the doors of Willamette Hall you pass beneath Albert Einstein, poking out his tongue. In a nod to its namesake, Streisinger Hall does not have a bust but instead has references to two of George Streisinger's areas of expertise: fruit flies and zebrafish.

In March 2016, the research and lab established by George Streisinger more than 50 years ago received a huge boost when Mary and Tim ’71 Boyle made a $10 million gift to support the upkeep of the animals and equipment. Tim Boyle’s aunt, Hildegard Lamfrom, was a researcher in Streisinger’s lab when the pioneering zebrafish research was being conducted.

"I’ve been around the university’s scientists, and I’ve always been impressed by the investments the university has made there," Tim Boyle said. "The results have been outstanding. I wanted to make sure that continued."