In memoriam: Harold J. Morowitz, expert on the origin of life

Yale alumnus and former faculty member Harold J. Morowitz, a biophysicist known as a leading authority on the origin of life, died on March 22 at age 88.

Harold J. Morowitz

Morowitz’s book “Energy Flow in Biology laid out his pioneering thesis that “the energy that flows through a system acts to organize that system,” an insight later quoted on the inside front cover of “The Last Whole Earth Catalogue.” The Wikipedia entry for “Life” quotes Morowitz’s assertion that “life is a property of an ecological system rather than a single organism or species.”

Morowitz received a B.S. in physics and philosophy, an M.S. in physics, and a Ph.D. in biophysics (at age 23), all from Yale University. He was a professor in Yale’s Department of Molecular Biophysics and Biochemistry from 1955 to 1987, also serving as the master of Pierson College. 

From 1988 to 2016 he was a Clarence Robinson Professor of Biology and Natural Philosophy at George Mason University. He was the founding director of the Krasnow Institute for Advanced Study at George Mason, chair emeritus of the Science Board of the Santa Fe Institute, and founding editor of the journal Complexity. He authored or co-authored 19 books, including the forthcoming “The Origin and Nature of Life on Earth.” 

For 22 years Morowitz wrote a monthly popular science column for the magazine Hospital Practice that cemented his reputation for having both a wide-ranging intellect and a gift for communicating scientific ideas with humor and optimism. The essays were later collected into five books; C.P. Snow described Morowitz’s essays as “”some of the wisest, wittiest, and best informed that I have read.” 

Morowitz was a longtime consultant for NASA, and served on the committees that planned the quarantine procedures for Apollo 11 and the biology experiments the Viking probe carried to the surface of Mars. 

He and his wife, Lucille, had five children (Joanna, Eli, Joshua, Zachary, and Noah) and nine grand children (Matthew, Laura, Philip, Rachel, Jeremy, Jessica, Adam, Daniel & Maisy)  His first great-grandchild is expected in June.

A tireless educator, Morowitz continued to write and teach until the day before his death.  He was fond of saying that as a teacher of the young he was contractually obligated to be an optimist. In his commencement addresses, he declared:

“Conformity is not necessarily a virtue
Hard work is almost never vice
Hopefulness is a moral imperative
And, a sense of humor helps.”