Heinz A. Lowenstam
In 1993 on June 7th, Heinz A. Lowenstam, Professor of Paleoecology, Emeritus, passed away. He was 80.
A member of the Caltech faculty since 1952, Lowenstam studied the biogeochemistry of shells, teeth, and other hard parts of ancient organisms for clues about prehistoric ecology and climate. Asked about his research, he frequently referred to himself as a "professional beachcomber." In the early 1960s, he startled geologists and biologists alike with the discovery that many animals do what conventional science had considered impossible: they manufacture substances such as the iron-containing mineral magnetite within their bodies. Out of this finding came the more recent discovery that many migratory animals, including birds, bees, and whales, biosynthesize magnetite and may owe their uncanny homing instincts to the presence of this "internal compass" that allows them to navigate by means of the earth's magnetic field.
A Jewish native of Germany, Lowenstam emigrated to Chicago in 1937 when, just days away from taking his Ph.D. oral exams, the Nazi regime instituted a rule that forbade the awarding of doctorates to Jews. With letters from two professors explaining his situation, he obtained a scholarship at the University of Chicago and, after a year and a half spent researching local paleontology, he received his Ph.D. in 1939.
Following work as a state paleontologist at the Illinois State Museum, as a geologist for the Illinois State Geological Survey, and as a research associate and associate professor at the University of Chicago, Lowenstam joined the Caltech Faculty In 1952. It was during his tenure here, in 1963, that he discovered that sea creatures called chitons have magnetic teeth made of iron. In 1975 he found that sea cucumbers have a network of microscopic iron beads a few layers beneath the surface of their skins, and in 1976, he found intact protein in an 80-million-year-old fossil clam shell.
In 1980 Lowenstam was elected to a fellowship in the American Academy Of Arts and Sciences, and to membership in the National Academy of Sciences. The following year, he returned to Germany for the first time in 44 years to receive an honorary degree from the University of Munich, the same institution that denied him his doctorate in 1937.