Stanford geneticist Leonard Herzenberg dies

Stanford professor developed cell-sorting system, enabling stem-cell research

Leonard Herzenberg, a retired geneticist whose discoveries are said to have kept thousands of people alive, died Oct. 27 at Stanford University Hospital, where he had been since Oct. 8 after suffering a severe stroke. He was 81.

A retired professor at Stanford School of Medicine, Herzenberg helped develop the first fluorescence-activated cell sorter, enabling the birth of modern immunology, stem cell research and proteomics, the study of the structure and functions of proteins, said medical school Dean Lloyd Minor.

His research "significantly advanced the clinical care of people with diseases such as cancer and HIV infection," Minor said.

Herzenberg also was known for his pursuit of social justice, donating the proceeds of his 2006 Kyoto Prize (a Japanese award similar to the Nobel Prize) to nonprofit organizations working to improve health, human rights and education.

Herzenberg collaborated for more than 50 years with his wife, geneticist Leonore Herzenberg, with whom he celebrated 60 years of marriage earlier this year.

The couple maintained jointly functioning laboratory groups and shared an office remarkable for its colorful d├ęcor and low cushions for seating. To colleagues and friends they were known as Len and Lee and were rarely apart, whether hosting department-wide parties at their campus home or discussing their research and planning the next set of experiments.

"Without Len, the entire conceptual framework of how to evaluate single cells by their 'FACS' signature, and to identify and isolate them from a tissue like bone marrow or a cancer like leukemia, may have never happened," said Irving Weissman, professor of pathology and of developmental at Stanford. "Len and Lee weren't just the central players in the field; for decades they were the field."

They encouraged minority teenagers to pursue a college education by establishing a program to bring high school students from East Palo Alto to Stanford to learn about medicine, biology and the multiple benefits of higher education. In addition, from the 1960s onward, Leonard Herzenberg conducted a behind-the-scenes campaign to expand career advancement opportunities for women in immunology and in science in general.

The fluorescence-activated cell sorter sorts cells according to fluorescent tags attached to their surfaces and keeps the cells viable during the process. Because researchers can couple the fluorescent tags to antibodies that home in on and attach to molecules produced only by certain cell types, the sorter can pluck out rarer-than-rare immune stem cells for further study, or identify stem cells and other populations of cells that are waxing and waning in diseases such as cancer or HIV.

Leonard Herzenberg was born Nov. 5, 1931, in Brooklyn, N.Y. He attended Brooklyn College, where he met Leonore, and earned a bachelor's degree there in 1952 in biology and chemistry. He then attended graduate school at the California Institute of Technology, where he earned a Ph.D. in 1955 in biochemistry and genetics.

When Herzenberg arrived at Stanford in September of 1959, the School of Medicine was undergoing a major transition as it moved from San Francisco to the main university campus. At the time, the buildings were simply standing in a dusty field, and Herzenberg's laboratory space was not yet ready. He set up a workspace in a room in the applied physics building, where his mammalian cell cultures promptly died in an unseasonable California heat wave (he was able to rescue most of them later from frozen samples). Lee, who had chosen to be a stay-at-home mom to raise their two young daughters, decided to come in to the lab at least to help Len get settled — an arrangement that Len referred to as "the best decision we ever made."

In 1961, Lee gave birth to the couple's third child, Michael, who was diagnosed with Down syndrome. As a result, the couple turned their sights on using FACS technology to develop a noninvasive prenatal test for the condition. Diana Bianchi, then a postdoctoral scholar in the lab, took on the project. In 1979, the laboratory published some of the first evidence that fetal lymphocytes can be found circulating in the blood of pregnant women.

Bianchi, now the executive director of the Mother Infant Research Institute at Tufts University, continued her efforts and recently collaborated with Stanford biophysicist Stephen Quake to show that Down syndrome can be reliably detected from fetal DNA circulating in the blood of pregnant women. This test is now used by hundreds of thousands of women each year and is expected to transform prenatal screening in the U.S.

In addition to his wife Leonore, Leonard Herzenberg is survived by four children, Berri, Jana, Michael and Eric (Rick), and four grandchildren. Continuing in the Herzenberg tradition, Berri established Project Bike Trip to teach bicycle maintenance to educationally disadvantaged high school students. Jana established Motema music, a jazz and world record label. Rick is a budding potter with interests in the arts.

Plans for a memorial symposium will be announced at a later date. The family requests that, in lieu of flowers, donations in Herzenberg's memory be made to the Len and Lee Herzenberg endowed fund at the Stanford School of Medicine. Gifts may be sent to Stanford Medical Center Development, 3172 Porter Drive, Suite 210, Palo Alto, CA. 94304, or made online at

— Palo Alto Weekly staff

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Like this comment
Posted by Clark Kepler
a resident of Menlo Park
on Nov 13, 2013 at 10:44 am

I'm sorrowed to learn of Len's death. A real loss for friends and community. He was a great and generous man.

Like this comment
Posted by Hmmm
a resident of East Palo Alto
on Nov 15, 2013 at 11:43 am

Hmmm is a registered user.

I used to see Dr. Herzenberg around town. My condolences to his loved ones and the scientific community for their loss.

Sorry, but further commenting on this topic has been closed.

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