Chance » Reflections » Montal

Brit opened the gates

Mauricio Montal / University of California, San Diego

June 2011

Britton Chance’s life was inspirational and exemplary. Brit opened for me the gates into molecular biosciences and inspired me to proceed in this journey with discipline, intensity, imagination and passion, his own way of doing science. This is Brit’s legacy for which I will always be grateful.

It was at medical school, while searching after the elusive high energy intermediate of oxidative phosphorylation, that I was first exposed to Brit’s numerous accomplishments and his dominant stature in bioenergetics. When I decided to pursue a career in science, I wrote to him: I was stunned when Brit replied with an acceptance. My first day at the JF in the summer of 1967, I was directed to Brit’s office where he was dictating one of the eight manuscripts he was working on. I did not realize then that this was one of his singular features. Shortly thereafter, I found myself working in Brit’s dark room using one of his double beam spectrophotometers under the wing of Angelo Azzi. Concurrently, C.P. Lee adopted me into her lab to get familiar with biochemical preparative techniques. At the time, the central issue was Peter Mitchell’s chemiosmotic hypothesis which was under intense scrutiny. I proceeded to test Mitchell’s postulates on submitochondrial particles by using ionophores as probes. This became the core of my thesis under Brit’s mentorship. Towards the end of my stay at the JF, Brit asked me to write a review summarizing my work. This request is noteworthy because the findings favored Mitchell’s formulation, a position which was not shared at that time by Brit. That paper was: Ion-translocation in energy-conserving membrane systems by B. Chance and M. Montal (Current Topics in Membranes & Transport p. 99-156, 1971). Brit’s first authorship unveiled for me his scientific integrity, and consolidated my respect as a scientist and as a person. Decades later, I was invited by Penn’s Chemistry Department to give a talk on the design of functional channel proteins, a topic unrelated to Brit’s projects. What a surprise it was when Brit came into the lecture hall, sat on the front row, took notes and, of course, asked questions. At the end, he took me on a side and said “I always knew you had a nose for good problems; keep up the good work”. This is an unforgettable experience.

Brit remained always supportive and gracious. I shall sincerely miss him.

– Maurice Montal