- Author: Kathy Keatley Garvey
“Nature is more a world of scents than a source of noise.”
So said renowned organic chemist Wittko Francke (1940-2020) of the University of Hamburg, Germany, when he presented a UC Davis Department of Entomology and Nematology seminar at Briggs Hall on Dec. 8, 2010.
He was quoting Jacques Le Magnen (1916-2002), who pioneered research on olfaction and taste.
Professor Francke said that insects communicate in a chemical language or chemical signals. Scientists have long known that methods that can attract or repel insects have important applications for agricultural pests and medical entomology.
He told the crowd how a queen bee secretes compounds that regulate development and behavior of the colony, and how an orchid releases the scent of a female wasp to attract male wasps—activities that result in pollination. He also touched on the “calling cards” of a number of other insects, including bumble bees, wasps, pea gall midges, stingless bees, bark beetles and leafminers, and pointed out that plants, too, send chemical signals.
Sadly, Francke passed away Dec. 27, 2020 at age 80.
"The scientific community loses a very productive and passionate researcher, a great colleague, mentor and friend," wrote former student Jan Bergmann of the Pontifica Universidad Católica de Valparaíso, Chile, a past president of the Latin American Association of Chemical Ecology. Bergmann's tribute appears on one of @ALAEQ2 tweets.
And sadly, the chemical ecologist who introduced Francke at the UC Davis seminar--Steve Seybold of the USDA Forest Service, Pacific Southwest Research Station, Davis, and an affiliate of the UC Davis Department of Entomology and Nematology--died Nov. 15, 2019 at age 60.
No stranger to UC Davis, Francke collaborated with chemical ecologist Walter Leal, a UC Davis distinguished professor of molecular and cellulary biology and former chair of the entomology department, on attractants for navel orangeworm. In his talk, Francke mentioned Leal's discovery of a sophisticated mechanism for the isolation of the chemical communication channels of two species of scarab beetles.
To celebrate the life and legacy of Francke and his work, Leal is organizing an online symposium set for 10 a.m. (Pacific Time) on Saturday, April 3. Register to participate or attend at https://tinyurl.com/3jsfcub7
Francke was one of the great pioneers shaping chemical ecology and the International Society of Chemical Ecology (ISCE), said Leal, an ISCE past president.
Born Nov. 28, 1940 and raised in Reinbek, near Hamburg, Germany, Francke studied chemistry at the University of Hamburg, obtaining his doctorate there in 1973. His thesis: "The Aggregation Pheromone of the Bark Beetle, Xyloterus domesticus. He was appointed professor of the Institute of Organic Chemistry of the University of Hamburg in 1985 and had served there until after his retirement.
A colleague once called him "The Mozart of Molecules," which Bergmann noted, "summarizes eloquently the admiration of many had for his work, which is documented in more than 450 scientific publications." Among Francke's many global honors: the 1995 ISCE Silver Medal.
Francke was not only an "outstanding, hard-working scientist" but a "loving husband, father of two children and grandather of four grandchildren," Bergmann wrote. "He was also a person with incredible kindness and generosity....He enjoyed bringing people together and deeply cared about his students, many of which stayed in touch with him long after they left his research group. His legacy will live on in those of us he has inspired and guided in so many ways."
Former Francke student Stefan Schulz, a professor at the Institute of Organic Chemistry, Germany, an ISCE past president, wrote on the symposium's registration page: "Even in his early years, he showed some characteristics many associates with him, such as energy, determination, imagination, and creativity. Despite several offers, he stayed his whole academic career at the University of Hamburg, where he finally became a Full Professor and served different functions, including Dean of Chemistry. He always liked to teach, which he did happily even in his later years."
Max Planck Institute for Chemical Ecology tweeted Dec. 29, 2020: "Wittko Francke's death is a severe loss for the field of Chemical Ecology. He was not only a great chemist, but he also had a large influence on the development of our institute being a key member of the advisory committee that set up our institute."
On April 3, the scientific and personal world of Professor Francke will come together to remember his life and legacy and pay tribute to "The Mozart of Molecules."