Norman Willett, PhD (September 19, 2014)
See obituary published in philly.com, click here
Tribute by the Eastern Pennsylvania Branch of the ASM to
Norman P. Willett
April 22, 2002
Distinguished Branch Membership Lectureship Meeting
Norm is the consummate microbiologist. He loves microbiology, and his enthusiasm for communicating it to everyone, no matter what their status, student, colleague, or administrator, is evident in even short conversations. Norm has experienced microbiology from the trenches, when he had to deal with infections in chickens on his parents poultry farm in New Jersey, to working at Squibb Institute for Medical Research where he was involved in screening new antibiotics, to research at Penn Vet School on the causative agent of bovine mastitis, Streptococcus agalactaciae, for which he developed a defined medium for growth, to experiments on caries production by strains of streptococci in genetically defined strains of rats, which he carried out both as part of his Ph.D. thesis at Michigan State and at Harvard in a post graduate position.
Norm decided to settle in Philadelphia and took a position as Chair of the Department of Microbiology at Temple University, where he built the Dental Microbiology department, designed the interior of a new building to house the basic sciences for Dentistry and Pharmacy, continued his studies on streptococci, and edited a textbook of dental microbiology. We are very lucky he chose Philadelphia and not somewhere in New Jersey, because he is a graduate of Rutgers and was involved early in his career with the Theobald Smith Society. Instead, we in the Delaware Valley have been the beneficiary of his knowledge, enthusiasm, and organizational skills, as he became involved in many organizations, including our own Eastern Pennsylvania Branch of the ASM. Norm has served as Treasurer, Vice President, and 29th President (1975-77) of our beloved Branch, and for many years, since 1983, has been the Chair or Co-chair of the Education Committee. These positions reflect things that he does well, to organize, to inspire, and to disseminate information. In his executive positions, Chair, President, and Board member, Norm proved a strong leader with new and innovative ideas. He is also a mediator, getting people to work together for the common good.
But first and foremost, Norm is an educator!! He has a renaissance man’s interest in science, besides his own area of streptococcal toxins. He reads vociferously and widely. At lunch he makes conversation about the latest articles in Science, Scientific American, J. Bacteriology, The American Scientist, or Infection and Immunity. He brings me articles about Salmonella in case I have missed them. All of this current information that he brings to his students and colleagues also has percolated into ideas to educate a wider audience at Symposia which he organized with his friend Frank Biondo, at the national ASM meetings. Norm’s sessions cut across discipline lines and frequently touched on issues of science and the citizen. They had catchy titles like “Science and Science Fiction: A “Reel” Approach to Science Literacy and Education” which featured talks on Ancient DNA: Jurassic Park Revisited; Using Science Fiction Films to Teach Biology and Physics; and a Wall Street Journal Reporter, Jerry Bishop, talking on ‘Science and the Irresponsible Press”. Another memorable session was “Emerging Diseases: The Threat of the Month: Impact on Public Health and on Medical Education” in which he had among others, Gail Cassell, President of the ASM and Laurie Garrett, a Newsday reporter. Laurie called in live from Africa with a report on Ebola. At the National ASM Norm was educating everyone.
At home in the Delaware Valley, Norm has been the catalyst to keep educational issues alive. For the E PA Branch, he had the idea to have monthly or bimonthly meetings with educators at local undergraduate colleges as well as high school science faculty to discuss problems and ideas related to microbiology.. He also decided it would be a good idea to devote one of our monthly meetings to Education, and the March meeting has been very successful as a forum for this topic. He was also a catalyst in encouraging the publication of the Education Committee’s Microbiology workbook [Learning About Microbes] for middle school and high school science teachers that was designed to introduce them to Microbiology and transfer the fun and enthusiasm of the science of Microbiology in everyday life to their students.
In the larger context, Norm received a grant from NIH to promote science education. He brought teachers from area schools, K to 12 th grade, public and private, to Temple University School of Medicine where they teamed up with a researcher and developed science laboratory modules to take back to their schools. In a sequel to this grant Norm obtained a prestigious Howard Hughes grant in which he worked out a system of holding workshops to have the original teachers train new teachers in the most successful modules, thus creating a multiplier effect of disseminating science. He currently has a grant from NIH to provide a year of supplemental studies for ‘bridge’ students’ to help them obtain the skills and credentials to qualify for graduate school. Norm figured out how to make education, science literacy, and transfer of information down the chain to the student’s formative years, a legitimate funded endeavor. Although I don’t know if we should encourage teachers to get any more education. If they get any smarter than they are, they may get into something that pays!
But the most important outcome of these endeavors was not monetary gain for Norm. His most important achievement is the establishment of a network of science teachers who know each other and who are empowered at their own schools. He created a community of science. Everyone, students, teachers, and colleagues, who has worked with Norm on these projects has the greatest admiration for his initiative and his proactive approach to coalescing the projects so they work, and is infected with his enthusiasm.
On a personal note, Norm has been a friend and mentor to me. He encouraged me to become active in the Temple Chapter of Sigma Xi and helped me to become its President. He did the same for the E PA Branch of the ASM, where I served as Secretary and as President. His positive outlook on life has helped me through many tough times at work. I know Norm has made similar contributions to the lives of others, showing them their potential and encouraging them to participate, debate, create. Above all, being with Norm, you have to be an optimist, and are inspired to work on projects for the common good.
Norm has been a major force in keeping the E PA Branch viable, exciting, and, most important, fun. Norm, we all pay tribute to you.
(Prepared and presented by Prof Toby Eisenstein, Temple University SOM, Dept of Microbiology and Immunology)