On September 26, 2023, Philip Benfey, notable plant geneticist, professor, and ASPB Pioneer Member, passed away. Philip had a lasting impact on many people in the plant biology community, some of whom have shared their memories and tributes to Philip here. Readers are invited to add their own memories to the comments of this blog post.
We have learned a tragic news on September 26, 2023 about Phillip’s passing. No words would do a justice in expressing the level of an enormous loss to the whole plant community: Phillip was an innovator, an effective and very thoughtful leader, great mentor and a giant in plant biology. And I mean giant not only because of his height but because of his essence and his soul.
To me personally, Phillip and his wife Elisabeth were very dear friends. Those who knew Phillip will likely agree that he was always looking forward optimist. I think Phillip would like us to remember him by celebrating his exquisite science and his truly great life with his wonderful, beautiful wife Elisabeth and two sons, Sam and Julian whom he adored.
Phillip and Elisabeth often came to Pasadena, where I live, in February and/or July and we always had great fun being together. I would like to share one of the last pictures taken during one of their February visits; we were at the Agnes restaurant in Pasadena and while leaving the waitress offered to take our picture (figure 1). I am so glad to have it. Both, Phillip and Elisabeth used to regularly come to the National Academy of Sciences meeting in Washington, DC and I have this gorgeous picture of the two of them at the presidential gala dinner (figure 2). I am grateful to be a friend with Philip and Elisabeth and will continue to be his friend in death, honoring him in all I do.
Natasha Raikhel, Distinguished Professor of Plant Cell Biology, University of California, Riverside
I first had the privilege of meeting Philip Benfey during his application for a faculty position at PGEC while I was a postdoc. Right from our initial encounter, it was evident that I had come across an individual of unwavering integrity, determination, unmatched intellect, and yet, an extraordinary degree of humility.
Over the years, my initial impression of him was not only reaffirmed but continued to grow. I found myself consistently amazed by his brilliance and felt immense joy whenever I had the opportunity to interact with this humble, gentle, and immensely powerful scientist at various meetings.
His sudden and unexpected passing has left a profound void in both my soul and the broader scientific community. However, I take solace in the enduring impact he has had on our society and in cherishing the memories of having known him.
Philip, your absence is deeply felt, and I miss you greatly.
Katayoon (Katie) Dehesh, Director, Institute for Integrative Genome Biology, Distinguished Professor, University of California, Riverside
When I was a postdoctoral fellow, Philip was already a towering figure in the plant biology field. The word “towering” refers more to his scientific stature than his tallness and also reflects, to some extent, my timidness in approaching him as a young person in the plant biology field. But as I interacted with him over the years, he came through as a friendly person in addition to a brilliant scientist. I first got to know him in year 2000 when I hosted him as a seminar speaker at Rutgers University. He was at New York University then and was the first seminar speaker whom I invited when I became an assistant professor. Later, he moved to Duke University and became Chair of the Biology Department. I remember he once called me in about 2004 or 2005 asking whether I would consider moving to Duke University, and I was very frank with him saying that I was seriously considering moving to University of California. Since 2013, I got to see Philip more often through HHMI meetings and annual meetings of National Academy of Sciences, and I met and had lovely conversations with his wife Elisabeth. Among my memories of Philip, other than his being on the podium giving talks, was when he was on the dance floor with Elisabeth at President’s Dinner at annual meetings of National Academy of Sciences. I also remember him as a supportive colleague – he was one of my references when I was looking for a new position two years ago. When I told him that I moved to Peking University in February 2023, he wrote and said that he had fond memories of his one-time visit to Peking University and that he hoped to do it again. After hearing the news of his passing, I went back to his email and my eyes welled up.
Xuemei Chen, Professor and Dean, School of Life Sciences, Peking University, China
I was fortunate to know Phil when I applied for a professor job at the Dept. of Biology, New York University. He and Gloria had just formed a wonderfully cooperating lab and collegial atmosphere that I found exciting and attractive. I have been very lucky to spend the last 30 years in this department. Phil started a push toward genomics analysis long before it became an accepted part of normal biological analysis. He set an imposing (not just due to his height and booming voice) example of a scientist dedicated to the highest quality and integrity of work. He never hesitated to challenge faulty logic or insufficient preparation. And yet, he was extremely encouraging and supportive of all his students, postdocs and junior colleagues like me. He became a “mover and a shaker” in the department, and I deeply respected him. He was also a fearless innovator. I remember him devoting a lot of time and energy to build a beautiful virtual laboratory that would bring lab practicals to students who would not have access to actual lab facilities. I think the project never took off, but it wasn’t for lack of effort. Phil left his imprint on our department, our memories, our work and our hearts.
David H. A. Fitch, Professor, Department of Biology, New York University
Philip was profoundly inspiring. He was a great scientist: visionary, creative, unbiased and rigorous at the same time. He was an admirable person: uplifting, truthful, tolerant and principled. He was an effective leader: leading by example, by influence, and by bringing together and empowering the right people. He was an entrepreneur: seeing opportunities that were there, but unseen by most others. Philip exuded the confidence that being an accomplished scientist and living life well are possible and desirable. He was a community builder and great supporter of his mentees and trainees. Philip has had an enormous and immeasurable impact on my life and my view on the person I aspire to be.
Wolfgang Busch, PhD; Professor, Plant Molecular and Cellular Biology Laboratory; Executive Director, Harnessing Plants Initiative; Salk Institute for Biological Studies
Having Philip Benfey as my PhD advisor changed my life. He was a powerful presence; a tall fellow with a booming voice who could weave complicated scientific ideas into a compelling story. He built a highly collaborative lab community with high standards for the science we did and the presentations we gave, and we all felt pride to be part of the Benfey Lab family. It was a place where all were willing and expected to help their colleagues with scientific advice and feedback, and I see many of us trying to build similar collaborative systems in our own labs. I treasure the time I spent in his lab and the relationships I built with the people there. Thanks, Philip; I am so glad I knew you.
Natalie Breakfield, PhD, VP of Research & Discovery, New Leaf Symbiotics
Goodbye to a Big Friend: Memories of Philip Benfey
My first live meeting with Philip Benfey took place in New York, 1992, at the occasion of the first international meeting on Arabidopsis Roots. It took little time to find out that we had many mutual interests, including our shared vision the that root system of Arabidopsis was an ideal playground for the discovery of fundamental mechanisms of plant development. We were both in the initial years of starting up independent research, so our overlapping interests could have set the stage for many years of stiff competition. But that did not happen. From the very beginning, it was clear that we both preferred friendship and collaboration over quick wins. Our interactions spanned decades. Perhaps to the initial horror of some of the members of our groups, we organized electronic meetings long before this became commonplace, in which we shared many unpublished data and ideas. In these meetings we usually started off with completely orthogonal views, discussed conflicting data, debated our viewpoints, and profited from these lively interactions by getting a clearer picture on biology. This led to joint grants, publications and exchanges of group members over a long period of time. And it deepened our friendship.
All in all, our long-standing interactions for me represent the essence of joyful science: share, collaborate, make fun of each other’s entrenched concepts, enjoy each other’s successes.
When we last spoke this summer, Philip was – as always – full of optimism about new technologies, new ways to solve problems. On this occasion, it was not about solving science but about conquering disease, and his optimism fueled a strong spirit to carry on, to keep hoping for the best. Alas, none of us can conquer forever. Philip’s big impact in the plant sciences remains, not only in the many contributions to the literature but also in the talented progeny that is now moving on in his footsteps. I will greatly miss Philip’s voice and our discussions, but I am proud to have been able to work with him for so long and have so many joyful memories of our shared journey in science.
Ben Scheres, Plant Developmental Biology, Wageningen University Research