- Author: Kathy Keatley Garvey
An online global symposium celebrating “The Life and Legacy of Wittko Francke,” a renowned organic chemist based at the University of Hamburg, Germany--and a frequent collaborator with several UC Davis scientists--brought out his humanity.
Professor Francke died Dec. 27, 2020 at age 80 of complications from COVID-19.
The 29 speakers praised him as a brilliant and pioneering scientist, a dedicated teacher and researcher, a kind and loyal friend, a connoisseur of good wine and good food, and a generous—and sometimes anonymous—humanitarian. They also lauded his mentoring, congeniality, sense of humor, “keen olfactory system” and his Ping Pong skills.
“Wittko was one of the great pioneers shaping chemical ecology and the International Society of Chemical Ecology (ISCE),” said Leal, a member of the UC Davis Department of Molecular and Cellular Biology faculty and a former chair of the UC Davis Department of Entomology. Francke served as ISCE president in 1989-90, and Leal in 2000-01.
Panelist and former ISCE president John Hildebrand of the University of Arizona said: “Every encounter with Wittko was unforgettable.”
Former student Jan Bergmann of the Pontifica Universidad Católica de Valparaíso, Chile, a past president of the Latin American Association of Chemical Ecology, said the scientific community lost “a very productive and passionate researcher, a great colleague, mentor and friend.”
Toward the end of the symposium, Wittko's two sons, Christian and Michael offered their remembrances. Christian disclosed that Daaks-Chemicals, a key sponsor at an ISCE annual meeting, was “a fake” business meant to disguise the real donor--his father.
Leal then announced a fundraising project for the International Society of Chemical Ecology: “The Wittko Francke's Daaks-Chemical Fund."
Leal related this week that "There was enormous support. ISCE has now received more than $23,000. In honor of Wittko, ISCE will be establishing the annual Wittko Francke's Daaks-Chemicals Memorial Lecture."
It was Seybold who introduced Francke when he was a guest speaker at a UC Davis Department of Entomology and Nematology seminar on Dec. 8, 2010. Images of them, along with Leal, postdoctoral scholar Zain Syed, and doctoral student Leslie Saul-Gershenz, opened the April 3rd symposium.
Among the speakers was UC Berkeley professor Dave Wood, now 90, who was Seybold's major professor.
The event concluded with chemical ecology icon Wendell Roelofs, emeritus professor of Cornell University, and his wife, Joanne, offering a toast to the late chemical ecology giant who cherished good science, good friends and good wine.
The symposium drew widespread praise.
“I received more than 40 emails from people I know very well and others I never had the pleasure to meet; they shared their thoughts about the celebration,” Leal related. “Perhaps, one comment captures the sentiment of all: ‘Contributions to chemical ecology like Wittko's are at the center of why our field is so rewarding.'”
One email was from a professor from Japan, Shigeru Matsuyama, who collaborated with Seybold. “He wrote me that he was surprised that Steve Seybold had passed,” Leal said. “He had visited Seybold and his family in Davis and mentioned he “had a wonderful time, seeing his laboratory, walking around Davis Farmers Market, and enjoying food at Guadalajara.”
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 Jan 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.
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."
France was not only an "outstanding, hard-working scientist" but a "loving husband, father of two children and grandfather 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."