Robert P. Perry, who made his mark at the start of the DNA age with key work on RNA synthesis and was still at the leading edge 45 years later, publishing an evolutionary biology paper using bioinformatics to compare mouse and human ribosomal protein promoter genes, died July 15 at his home in Bucks County, PA. He was 82. Perry was best known for resolving the structure of the 5' cap on messenger RNA in the nucleus. He spent nearly his entire research career at what is now the Fox Chase Cancer Center in Philadelphia and was elected to the National Academy of Sciences in 1977. He was a member of ASCB for 29 years and served on the ASCB Council from 1971-1973.
"He was the one who discovered mRNA capping and I think that's what got him into the National Academy so early," says former colleague Jon Chernoff, Chief Scientific Officer at Fox Chase. "I think they knew (at the time) that there was a cap but it was Bob who determined the weird structure which was this odd thing that no one had ever seen before." The 5' cap consists of guanine nucleotide connected to messenger RNA by a triphosphate link that stabilizes the molecule during translation. But mRNA was only part of Perry's lifetime scientific portfolio, according to Chernoff, that also covered ribosome biogenesis, immunoglobulin genetics, and chromatin remodeling.
Says Chernoff, "He was a scientist's scientist," an old school experimentalist who loved pure research and had little time for outside business ventures or scientists who weren't serious. "Bob ran these Monday afternoon sessions. They were like a journal club but for faculty only," Chernoff recalls. The Fox Chase faculty at the time included two Nobel Prize winners—Baruch Blumberg and Irwin Chase—as well as notables like Al Knudsen and Beatrice Mintz. Chernoff recalls sweating over his overhead projector slides while the questions rained down. "These were very rigorous sessions. I don't think I've been to anything like these since. It was a little intimidating. They weren't mean about it but Bob would lead the pack and if he didn't think you were prepared, he would let you know about it."
Chernoff adds, "I liked him very much. There were some very famous people at Fox Chase when I came —and there still are—but he was probably the one who I'd like to think I've modeled myself after. Bob was this no-nonsense guy who was just really interested in discovering basic processes in cell biology."
Perry was born in Chicago and was steered into mathematics by an engaging high school teacher. He earned his math degree at Northwestern in 1951 and his PhD in biophysics from the University of Chicago in 1956. Then came three rapid postdocs—the first at Oak Ridge National Laboratory, the second at the University of Pennsylvania, and finally, the Free University of Brussels, Belgium, where he was an American Cancer Society fellow with Maurice Errera, who introduced him to the role of the nucleolus in RNA synthesis. Perry joined the forerunner of Fox Chase, the Institute for Cancer Research, in 1960 and worked there until his retirement in 2007.
Among other talents, Perry was a natural linguist, fluent in French, Spanish, and Italian. At the National Academy, he was named to its Committee for Human Rights and was part of a three-person, fact-finding team sent in 1978 to Argentina and Uruguay during the height of the so-called "dirty" wars against leftists. Perry was also part of a scholarly exchange in 1987 with the former Soviet Union where, says Chernoff (who has visited Russia several times since), Perry is still remembered as one of the first Westerners brave enough to make real contact with individual Soviet scientists. Perry also studied Russian, Chernoff recalls.