ASPB Remembers Philip Benfey

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.


Figure 1. After dinner at the restaurant in Pasadena (l-r): Elisabeth Benfey, Natasha Raikhel and Phillip Benfey

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.

Figure 2. Phillip and Elisabeth at the NAS Presidential Gala

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


Read a memorial from Duke University or New York University, and share your own below.

8 thoughts on “ASPB Remembers Philip Benfey”

  1. There are very few real-life heroes who have made significant contributions to various fields. Personally, Philip Benfey has always been a heroe to me in the true sense of the word. He has made enormous contributions to the field of root developmental biology. In fact, in view of the relative recent emerged discipline of root developmental biology, we should consider him without any doubt the founding father of this branch in science. I don’t recall exactly when I first met Phil, but I remember being deeply impressed, pumped up even, by his talk on the Arc et Senans Plant Workshop: Roots back in May 1996. He told us a story on radial patterning of the root and identified through a forward genetic screen 2 important transcription factors. Turns out that one TF is controlling the other in one of the first transcriptional networks ever reported from plants. Later on, he kept surprising us by introducing and pioneering novel technologies in root research. Most importantly, and illustrating his amazing generosity in science, is the fact that he allowed other groups to benefit from his achievements. Based on this attitude (the essence of joyful science as Ben calls it) we were also welcome to perform our first cell sorting experiments in his lab which generated our first Science paper. But one thing, which is always deeply moving me, is his consistent reference he made to our initial observation on the recurrent auxin maximum in the root dictating the regular spacing of lateral roots along the primary root. Although he did a much better job using a luciferase construct and even invented the concept of a root clock, he never failed to refer to our original paper, a real proof of an exceptional scientist.
    We and the entire root biology community are very grateful for all the achievements Phil has given us and we all will miss him very much.

  2. I joined Philip’s lab at NYU as a post-doc in the early 90’s, and spend about 7 years working there. It was an exciting time to be in the lab. Everyone was engaged, we all enjoyed working together, and the science was exciting. Looking back, I realize how much Philip protected us all from the stresses that inevitably interfere with research as a PI – he rarely talked about funding, and we only found out indirectly when he was going through the tenure process. He also was not a competitive scientist, and served as a role model for the open sharing of scientific ideas. “Ideas are cheap” he said, the kind of comment that could only come from someone who, like Philip, had fantastic ideas all the time. He was a wise, kind and generous mentor. He spoke slowly and thoughtfully, and although he wasn’t easy to impress he was always supportive. Once in a great while a result would surprise and impress him, and he would say “Wowie Zowie!”. I still say that, very occasionally, to my own lab members. He encouraged our independence and growth, and in an understated way launched the scientific careers of a large number of people. Although I hadn’t spoken to Philip much in the last 20 years I think of him often as a very positive part of my professional life. His sudden, premature passing has affected me deeply. My heartfelt sympathies go out to Philip’s family.

  3. I heard Philip first time in 2004 in Berlin while attending Arabidopsis meeting. After that I heard him many places. I found his work pretty exciting in emerging areas of plant biology. His lab was quite innovative, and many interesting tools developed under his wing were worthy to emulate for young plant folks. I had one to one conversation when he visited UC Riverside. At that point in time I realised his gentleness and simplicity. Philip, we will miss you!

  4. Phil was a leader in any community he was a part of and a genuinely nice person to be around and interact with. He was a brilliant scientist who clearly inspired all his students and post docs. His entrepreneurial style was something to emulate. I had the honor to work with him when I was on the science advisory board for the Grassroots/Monsanto collaboration and also when I consulted as a workshop designer with the Duke Plant Biology faculty. His insights to people interactions were always spot on. He will be deeply missed.

  5. When I was post-doc in Gloria Coruzzi and Ken Birnbaum’s labs, Philip had already moved from NYU few years ago. However, the lab was still (and will be for ever) imbued with his aura. Before meeting him in person, I had this image of a great scientist, a visionary and talented researcher, reading again and again his work.
    And then, I met him in person… in addition of all these qualities, I discovered an exceptional human being. I had the chance to meet him the first time in Hawaï, a fabulous place, for the ASPB meeting in 2017. He told me about his incredible life story making you think that he belongs to this kind of person changing in gold everything they touch.
    I will always remember his class, delicacy, intelligence and his cute English accent when he was talking to me in French.
    Our community and hearts lost a GREAT MAN.

    Sandrine Ruffel, Institute For Plant Sciences of Montpellier, France

  6. Philip Benfey has been larger than life and will always remain so for me and many others. With his big bold vision, he ushered in the genomic era to identify cell-type specific gene expression – first with cell-marked lines, then with single cells. The Benfey data in this area is the gold-standard for the plant community and has influenced all of our work. Importantly, Philip’s discoveries in the basic research of stem cells transcend plant science. It is heartwarming and heartbreaking to listen to Philip describe this work in his most recent on-line interview “The leading strand” at the CSHL Stem Cell Meeting, this past June 3, 2023 (

    I am proud to say that Philip and I were close friends and colleagues and that I have – and will always – hold him in high regard and with great affection. We spent 20 years together – first at Rockefeller, where we shared an office, trading stories of our work and raising our young families. This personal bond was key to our joint move to NYU Biology, where we designed, built, and shared the first “open labs” and embarked on our new studies at the dawn of the genomic era. Philip was always the big and bold thinker. His judgement and vision crystal clear. I fondly remember when we embarked on joint ventures, including kicking around and pursuing ideas for start-ups, as far back as the early 1990s. Ever the bold thinker, Philip enacted this vision in two successful start-ups, which are recognized by their acquisition by major Ag biotech companies.

    Above all, I will miss Philip’s wisdom, vision, his level-headed perspective, his optimism, charm, laugh and his larger-than-life presence. I always thought that Obama reminded me of Philip Benfey – not the other way around – both whip smart, cool, collected and greatly admired. My heart goes out to Philip’s family, Elisabeth – the love of his life – and to Sam and Julien the two sons they both adored.

    The light of his presence will be sorely missed. With deep, deep, deep sadness, your loving friend – Gloria Coruzzi, Carroll & Milton Petrie Professor, New York University, Center for Genomics & Systems Biology

  7. I will miss Philip. We had wonderful conversations at conferences spanning science and personal experiences, including his adventures as a young world traveler. He said back then “I enjoyed my retirement years early in life”. In hindsight it is a blessing that he started exploring many aspects of life and professions at that time. He also told me very interesting facts that he had researched about his grandfather’s and great-great uncle’s experiences at the University of Goettingen (my alma mater), with his great uncle being commemorated by a plaque in the city and a street (“Benfey Weg”). Wouldn’t it be nice if Philip could be commemorated as well, given his impact on the plant sciences?

  8. I first met Phil when we were both graduate students, and have been his scientific neighbor (across the light blue/dark blue divide) for decades. He was a scientific innovator, and also clearly someone who cared about his family deeply. He’ll be missed.


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