Yale University

Sidney Altman, former dean of Yale College and Nobel Prize winner, died in his New Jersey home on April 5. He was 82.

Altman, Sterling professor emeritus of molecular, cellular and developmental biology, won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1989 for discovering the catalytic properties of RNA. Altman became a professor at the University in 1971, and he served as dean of Yale College from 1985 to 1989. During his time as dean, Altman helped pioneer the University’s approach to undergraduate science education.

“Sid Altman was a great scientist, and a great University leader,” Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences Tamar Gendler told the News. “In the late 1980s, when I was an undergraduate, he served as dean of Yale College when the role involved oversight not only of the students but also of the faculty. He was insightful and dedicated. A few years later, the excellence of his scientific contributions was recognized with a Nobel Prize. This extraordinary combination — a truly great scientist, a truly dedicated university citizen, distinguishes Sid and his legacy.”

Altman was born in Canada in 1939 and grew up in Montreal, where his mother worked in a textile mill and his father in a grocery store. Both his parents were first-generation immigrants, and Altman’s upbringing focused heavily on the importance of education.

“For our immediate family and relatives, Canada was a land of opportunity,” Altman wrote in a short autobiography for the Nobel Foundation. “However, it was made clear to the first generation of Canadian-born children that the path to opportunity was through education. No sacrifice was too great to forward our education and, fortunately, books and the tradition of study were not unknown in our family.”

Outside of his studies, Altman was an avid ice hockey fan and an excellent hockey player. He went to MIT as an undergraduate, where he studied physics and played on the club hockey team. 

Altman began his academic career as a physicist. Only during his final semester at MIT did he take a short introductory course in molecular biology to “find out what all the excitement was about,” according to the autobiography.

After graduating in 1960, Altman began his PhD in physics at Columbia University. But he soon questioned his decision to become a physicist and ultimately decided to leave Columbia and enroll as a graduate student at the University of Colorado Medical School. There, he studied biophysics under the mentorship of Leonard Lerman, who was doing cutting edge research on DNA.

After completing his PhD, Altman went first to Harvard, where he worked with Matthew Messelson, and then to the Medical Research Council Laboratory of Molecular Biology, or MRC, in Cambridge, U.K. In Cambridge, he began his postdoctoral work with Nobel Prize winner Francis Crick and Nobel Prize winner-to-be Sidney Brenner. 

“I was privileged to become a member of the group . . . at the [MRC] in Cambridge, England,” Altman wrote. “As an ex-physicist, I felt as if I was joining the equivalent of [Niels] Bohr’s group in Copenhagen in the 1920s. It turned out to be scientific heaven.”

At the MRC, Altman conducted research that would help lead to the discovery of the ribozyme RNase P, which consists of a structural RNA molecule and one or more proteins, and for which he would ultimately win a Nobel Prize.

Professor emeritus of molecular, cellular and developmental biology Joel Rosenbaum, Altman’s long-time colleague, recalled how Clement Markert — Yale’s chair of biology at the time — went to Cambridge to meet Altman and hired him on the spot. “The two became fast friends,” Rosenbaum said.

At Yale, Altman rose through the ranks while continuing his work on the enzymatic properties of RNA. With the foundation he built at the MRC, Altman’s work culminated in 1978 with the analysis of RNase P and the conclusion that RNA-based ribozymes could have catalytic properties. 

“When he sent his first publications out on ribozymes [in the late 1970s], the community of molecular biologists, including several at Yale working on RNA, did not want to believe the work,” said Rosenbaum. “He had a hard time obtaining invitations to speak at scientific meetings, like those at Cold Spring Harbor, and, indeed, getting his work published.”

But the scientific community could not neglect Altman’s work for long. It soon became clear that ribozymes were the future of molecular biology. The work Altman completed at Yale earned him a Nobel Prize in 1989, over a decade after his 1978 discovery. He received the prize with Thomas R. Cech, who did similar work at the University of Colorado.

“It did not take long . . . for the ribozyme field to take off, and today it is a major field in molecular biology,” Rosenbaum wrote to the News. “I regard [Altman’s] finding as almost equal in importance in Molecular Biology to the discovery of the DNA double helix by Watson, Crick (and Franklin).” 

Altman became chair of Yale’s biology department in 1983. In 1985, he began a four-year stint as the dean of Yale College, during which he maintained an active lab in Kline Tower and continued to publish in major scientific journals.

As dean, Altman spearheaded the expansion of the science and language requirements of the Yale College curriculum, which remain today. In 1989, Altman returned to his position as a full-time professor.

“As the dean of Yale College, Sid was extraordinarily devoted to having students conversant in all disciplinary areas,” Yale President Peter Salovey said in a Yale News obituary on Wednesday. “And as someone who was himself a great reader and a beautiful writer, and widely knowledgeable, he believed non-scientists should have an understanding of science, and that scientists would benefit by having a richer understanding of the humanities, arts, and social sciences. The distributional requirements he helped initiate at the time promoted these goals.” 

Altman married Ann M. Körner in 1972. He is survived by his two children, Leah and Daniel, and four grandchildren.

“My life has been enormously enriched by my marriage to Ann Korner,” Altman wrote in his Nobel Foundation autobiography. “My wife is my colleague, mentor and friend in every respect. She and our two wonderful children … have contributed immeasurably to whatever success I have achieved.”

Altman’s funeral services will be private.

Clarification, April 13: This article has been updated to clarify the nature of the Yale News story on Altman.  

Evan Gorelick covers Woodbridge Hall with a focus on the Yale Corporation, endowment, finances and development. He is a Production and Design Editor and previously covered faculty and academics at the News. Originally from Woodbridge, Connecticut, he is a sophomore in Timothy Dwight College double-majoring in English and economics.