Heinz Herrmann: My father in learning

By Mark Nwangwu, Vanguard

THE most important duty of parents is to bring up their children to know and understand what is right and what is wrong; to be a person of good character. Better put, parents lead their children to live a life of virtue, of value, in all the circumstances that they, the children, may encounter. This learning experience takes place early in life and soon, one is ready to leave home, to face the world, armed with the truth of one's upbringing and the strength of one's character.

Professor Heinz Herrmann, who passed on in the early hours of October 18, 2009, was a man who nurtured me in the character of learning. He created a laboratory where learning and the pursuit of truth were the highest goals of human life. I was already twenty-nine and had my doctorate, when I first came to Prof. Herrmann's lab in 1966 on a post-doctoral fellowship paid entirely from his grants. If I had not learnt right from wrong, and did not know what it meant to live a life of virtue, then I was a lost soul. But science did not yet flow in my veins and I had not acquired a character in science. A whole new world awaited me in Prof. Herrmann's lab!

Having completed the study of medicine and a research assistantship in biochemistry at the University of Vienna and postdoctoral training in Copenhagen, Heinz arrived in the U.S. in 1939. After a stint at the Johns Hopkins Medical School, he started his studies of embryonic development, first at Yale and the University of Colorado Medical School, transferring his work to the University of Connecticut in 1959 with the tenure of a research professorship of the American Cancer Society. He was for ten years director of the Institute of Cell Biology and participated in the foundation of the American Society of Cell Biology. This was the man who was to shape my life in science.

1965 was a difficult year in Western Nigeria and, foreseeing a life in which I could not readily put my knowledge to use, I wrote to Prof. Herrmann applying for a post-doctoral fellowship. He had sent me a reprint of an article he had published when I was doing my Ph.D. research. I was later to learn that he had received numerous requests for this prized article but had kept the last copy. When he received my request for this same article, he told his post-graduate students that he would send it out because it was likely to be far more significant to this student from Africa than to others in the United States. Indeed, that article was monumental in my life!

The University of Connecticut, Storrs, offered me the fellowship and I was beside myself with joy. Then began a long series of correspondence to arrange for our flight tickets to the US - for myself, my wife, Helen and our two children. Finally, the university agreed to pay for our tickets and to deduct the cost from my first-year fellowship stipend. This was 1966 - The Federal Government had been overthrown in the January coup; Major-General Ironsi had been killed in the July counter-coup, and pogroms had been visited on Nigerians of non-northern descent, principally the Igbo. I had applied for tickets for the journey: Port-Harcourt - Calabar - Tiko - Douala - Paris - New York - Hartford. Now wait for this: all four tickets arrived, by registered mail, at Nkwogwu Postal Agency, in my hometown, Nguru, in then Eastern Nigeria, in October, 1966. We were all packed to travel and left a few days later. Prof. Herrmann met us at Hartford airport and drove us to Storrs, where a two-bedroom university accommodation was waiting for us at 10 Mansfield Apartments. Heinz had borrowed all sorts of furniture for our use and assisted with our settling in.

My work now began. Heinz had three Ph.D. students one of whom, Arthur William Rourke took me through many essential laboratory techniques and was ever so gracious. We became close friends and when his daughter Elizabeth arrived, Art chose me as her godfather. Heinz put me to work on a project I did not particularly like but to which I gave my best. In the process, I learnt to purify the major muscle protein, myosin, free of any other protein. Some time in 1967, Dr. Stuart Mackenzie Heywood delivered a seminar at Storrs on his brilliant and groundbreaking work on myosin synthesis that made him a leading light in molecular biology. After the seminar, I was raving wild with immeasurable joy telling everyone that this was exactly the type of work I craved for. Heinz then threw the bombshell: Stuart would be joining the University of Connecticut and would work in his lab. Thus, my dream of working on molecular biology of development would be realised. Stu (as we fondly called him) and I went on to publish two seminal papers that announced a new dawn in the molecular biology of cells of higher organisms. Up till then, what was known about genetics at the molecular level came from studies of viruses and bacteria. What Stu did for me is beyond words: an urchin from Obetiti, Nguru now worked at the cutting edge of molecular biology. Heinz watched us with the satisfaction of a grand patron, giving us all the support we needed, making sure our first paper was published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science, USA, one of the most prestigious journals in science.

After I moved to Canada in 1969 as an assistant professor at Brock University, St. Catharines, I kept in touch with Heinz and Stu and they continued to guide me and support my efforts. I spent my sabbatical leave at the University of Ibadan in 1974-75 only to run into Heinz and his dear wife, Virginia at the University of Ibadan Senior Staff Club. They had come as tourists to Nigeria not expecting to see me! Helen was expecting our fourth child and was at the University College Hospital awaiting delivery. When our son arrived while Heinz was still in Nigeria, we named him Heinz after my father in learning. Years later, he entered a subscription to The Economist, lasting over six years, for his namesake, then an economics student. After his retirement in 1980, he wrote a textbook of Cell Biology and a book about the nature of understanding complex systems both of which he sent to me. The latter book informed my foray into biology and the social order.

Helen and I visited Heinz and Stu in the summer of 1989 and, with their wives and friends, we were treated to a sumptuous lunch and a most unforgettable afternoon. We visited Storrs again in 2001, and in 2003. By this time, Heinz was already in his nineties and after dinner by 8 p.m., his dear wife Virginia drove us back to Willimantic, about fifteen kilometres away, complaining that Heinz drove too fast for her liking! This was the last time Helen and I saw Heinz. I wrote him in August this year that we would like to pay him a visit. In his last e-mail to me on August 1, he wrote to say, much to our dismay:

"To my regret, we are unfit for a visit right now. With senile deterioration, loss of hearing, and other complications, it would be too difficult to be an adequate host. I would be grateful for any news regarding Ikemefula and if you have finished your autobiography. We follow news from Nigeria and have been thinking of you. With much fondness, Heinz."

Simple, affable and compassionate, Heinz lived a life of humility and sincerity. A man of unsurpassed honour and generosity has passed on; a master of the learning culture. I am exceedingly proud to say, he made me what I am in molecular biology. Above all, he was my father in learning.

Professor Nwagwu lives in Obetiti, Nguru, Imo State



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