I received the sad news today that Lynn Margulis, celebrated eccentric and evolutionary revolutionary, passed away last night, the evening of the 22nd November, 2011. She had suffered from a severe stroke and was discharged from UMass Medical Centre on the 19th November to receive hospice care at home. Her family were with her.
I had the great fortune of working with Lynn for two years on various projects and investigations, including the evolutionary origin of sex, symbiosis in foraminifera, definitions of life, and NASA exobiology projects. She visited Oxford for a year where she taught me vast amounts about microbial evolution and diversity, hosted countless seminars and symposia, even a debate with Richard Dawkins. She worked closely with myself and my supervisor Martin Brasier, and became a cherished friend.
In the short time that I knew her, she was unfailingly kind and generous, warm, and welcoming. Lynn first made a name for herself with the maverick suggestion that Eukaryotes evolved from the long term symbiotic association between different kinds of bacteria. Her theory seemed crazy at the time, but gradually it has slipped into common acceptance and for evolutionary microbiologists, Lynn Margulis became a household name.
Since then, Lynn continued to walk a knife edge of eccentricity. Her theories were always a little outside the norm, and some dismissed her as a quack or even, cruelly, an ’embarassment’. No scientist deserves to be described in that way, especially a person as hard-working and dedicated as Lynn. Especially when she herself set the precedent for ‘crazy’ hypothesis to accepted theory. To people like Lynn we owe some great leaps in scientific theory, and the world would be a much lesser place without them.
Lynn was a strong woman. I last saw her just over a year ago, at a NASA symposium in Washington DC. She was vibrant and outrageous and outspoken. She held tightly to my hand while she laughingly gossiped about delegates behind their back. When we parted, she hugged me and told me never to be dull. And after knowing her, I never could be.
I know she touched a lot of people during her life. She was a person that inspires great feeling, good or bad. But Lynn Margulis shaped the course of my research career, and inspired the kind of scientist, and the kind of person, I try to be. Her legacy will live on in those who were fortunate enough to know her. She is, and always will be, truly unforgettable.