Stanford scientist Stanley Falkow to receive National Medal of Science

The microbiologist conducted pioneering work in learning how bacteria can cause human disease and how antibiotic resistance spreads.

- By Krista Conger

Stanley Falkow will receive a 2015 National Medal of Science at a ceremony in January.
L.A. Cicero/Stanford News Service

Stanley Falkow, PhD, the Robert W. and Vivian K. Cahill Professor in Cancer Research, Emeritus, at the Stanford University School of Medicine, has been awarded the 2015 National Medal of Science. The honor was announced today by the White House.

Falkow is being recognized for his pioneering work in studying how bacteria can cause human disease and how antibiotic resistance spreads.

“It was a total surprise,” said Falkow, who learned of the award on Dec. 19 in an email from John Holdren, PhD, the president’s chief science adviser. “I always say, ‘In science, it’s not “I,” it’s “we.” And it’s so true. There are hundreds of students and colleagues around the world with whom I’d like to share this honor.”

“Dr. Falkow is deeply deserving of this award,” said Lloyd Minor, MD, the dean of the School of Medicine. “He has made invaluable contributions to the field of microbiology and understanding the effect of bacteria on human health. We at Stanford Medicine are extremely proud and honored he has been recognized in this way.”

Falkow, 81, is an emeritus professor of microbiology and immunology and a member of the Stanford Cancer Institute. The award will be presented in a ceremony at the White House in January 2016.

Falkow is well-known for his work on extrachromosomal elements called plasmids and their role in antibiotic resistance and pathogenicity in humans and animals. As a graduate student in the early 1960s, first at the University of Michigan and later at Brown University, and then as an independent researcher at Georgetown University, he learned the biochemical and microbiological techniques necessary to deduce how bacteria transmit antibiotic resistance to one another. In particular, he found that some bacteria were resistant to antibiotics to which they had never been exposed, which at first confounded researchers. Falkow subsequently discovered that bacteria gained their resistance by sharing their genes much more promiscuously than had been thought possible.

When Falkow arrived at Stanford in 1981, he set aside his study of plasmids to concentrate on how organisms as diverse as cholera, plague and whooping cough cause disease in humans.

Falkow is one of nine recipients of the 2015 National Medal of Science, which recognizes individuals for outstanding contributions to the fields of several scientific disciplines. He is one of two Stanford recipients; the other is psychologist Albert Bandura, PhD, the David Starr Jordan Professor, Emeritus.

“We congratulate both emeriti professors Stanley Falkow and Albert Bandura on this extremely well-deserved honor. We are so proud that they have been recognized for their contributions not just to our country, but to humanity,” said Stanford President John Hennessy, PhD. "Their lifetime of work in preventing infectious disease, and in learning how we can understand and change behavior, has been instrumental in helping people around the world lead healthier, more productive and more peaceful lives.”

Falkow's previous honors include the 2008 Lasker-Koshland Award for Special Achievement in Medical Science; the 2000 Robert-Koch Award from the Robert-Koch Foundation in Germany; election to the Institute of Medicine; membership in the National Academy of Sciences and the Royal Society; and a former presidency of the American Society of Microbiology.

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