Ray Owen, Professor of Biology, Emeritus, passed away Sunday, September 21, 2014. Ray was a true pioneer of immunology and a legend on campus for his dedication to students, teaching and diversity.
Owen's greatest contribution (among many) to the fields of vertebrate genetics and immunogenetics was the discovery of immunological tolerance, which he did by a remarkable genetic analysis of twin cattle in which a circulatory anastomosis had allowed reciprocal transplantation of hematopoietic stem cells. He recognized from blood typing that the cattle had no immune response to the foreign antigens introduced from their twins. This discovery had numerous scientific and practical applications, among them the idea that immune suppression could allow tissue transplantation. In fact, Owen first postulated that immunosuppressive treatments such as x-irradiation might allow incompatible transplants, and participated in the experiments in which bone marrow transplants to irradiated recipients were first successfully demonstrated. His later work included studies on human antibodies, blood group antigens, evolution of immune systems (including studies of the genetics of scale transplantation in goldfish and of blood groups in buffalo and Rhesus monkeys), and genetic analysis of the major histocompatibility complex of the mouse. In this area his laboratory identified the Ss locus, which first defined the S region of the mouse H-2 complex.
As an educator, Owen was co-author of the most widely used genetics textbook of its time, General Genetics by Srb and Owen (second edition by Srb, Owen and Edgar). This was probably the primary university genetics text from the publication of the first edition in 1952 until well after the 1965 publication of the second edition.
Owen's dedication to mentoring students and postdocs had a great impact on Caltech Biology during the 1980's and 1990's, long after he had closed his own laboratory. He took a sustained interest in matching undergraduates, especially women undergraduates, with laboratories in which they could do strong research and thrive. His office meanwhile became an intellectual hub and professional networking center for all graduate students and postdocs at Caltech with interests in immunology.
He then stayed in touch with former students and associates for decades, providing advice, editorial guidance, and suggestions for new publications that might be relevant to their interests. More than one generation of scientists whom he mentored have since risen to prominent positions throughout the field of Immunology in America, and Owen's contributions to their careers were honored in 1999 by an Excellence in Mentoring award from the American Association of Immunologists.
Owen also filled many important administrative positions in his career, among them President of the Genetics Society of America (1962), member of the Genetics Study Section of the National Institutes of Health from 1958-61 and its Chairman from 1961-1963, Chairman of the Caltech Biology Division from 1961 to 1968, Member of the Immunobiology Study Section of the NIH from 1966-67 and its Chairman from 1967-1970, Chair of the Genetics Section of the National Academy of Sciences (1969-1972), Scientist-Member of the three-person President's Cancer Panel (1972-1975), and Dean of Students and Vice-President for Student Affairs at Caltech (1975-1980). This last indicates his long-term and renowned dedication to the nurturing of students in the sciences, a dedication underlined by his having chaired the committee that both designed Caltech's present freshman curriculum, and recommended the admission of women as Caltech undergraduates, which resulted in 1970 from Owen's work.
Owen was also awarded an array of medals and honorary degrees for his science, including the Mendel Medal of the Czechoslovak Academy of Sciences in 1966 on the occasion of the Mendel Centennial. He was a member of the National Academy of Sciences, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, the American Philosophical Society, and many other honorary and professional organizations.