Max Birnstiel (1933-2014)
We are deeply saddened by the unexpected death of our founding director Max L. Birnstiel, who passed away peacefully on 15th of November at the age of 81. We have lost an influential mentor, brilliant scientist and visionary leader who shaped the IMP and laid the foundations for today’s Vienna Biocenter. To those of us who knew Max personally and used to work with him, he was a much admired role-model, a visionary thinker and a father figure for the entire institute.
Max Birnstiel came to Vienna in 1986, soon after the companies Boehringer Ingelheim and Genentech had conceived the idea of establishing a basic research institute in Vienna. Max – then head of the Institute of Molecular Biology at the University of Zürich – was identified as the right person to shape and lead the new institute. All his experience, enthusiasm and wisdom went into setting up a center of excellence and preparing the grounds for a successful future. The IMP was modeled after his ideas that he pursued with great determination.
Among his first brilliant accomplishments was the recruitment of five senior scientists who went on to shape the IMP for many years. Adrian Bird joined from the MRC Laboratories in Edinburgh and Kim Nasmyth from the LMB in Cambridge. Hartmut Beug and Erwin Wagner both came from EMBL in Heidelberg, and Meinrad Busslinger accompanied him from the University of Zürich. Another key decision by Max was to create a set of core facilities; this was rather unusual at the time and helped to establish the IMP as a center of scientific excellence.
In 1988, the IMP was officially opened at its present location in Vienna’s third district, back then a rather isolated place for a research center. But it did not remain on its own for long, since Max had made it a condition of his acceptance that the molecular biology departments of the University of Vienna (now known as MFPL) would be relocated to Dr. Bohr-Gasse. This led to the foundation of the Vienna Biocenter (VBC), which developed into Austria´s largest and leading life science campus. After his retirement as IMP director in 1996, Max also co-founded Intercell (now Valneva) as the first biotech company on the VBC and later significantly supported the foundation of Affiris.
As a scientist, Max Birnstiel was one of the pioneers of molecular biology. He was the first to purify eukaryotic genes (histone and ribosomal RNA genes) to homogeneity using biochemical and biophysical techniques, before cloning procedures had been invented. Later, he was one of the first to characterize the regulatory regions of eukaryotic genes that are transcribed by RNA polymerase I, II or III. These regulatory regions are now well known as promoters. His outstanding achievements were internationally recognized by numerous honorary doctorates and eminent awards.
We remember Max as an outstanding scientist and a visionary leader, but also as a friend who cared personally about the institute and his colleagues. We are grateful for everything he has done for the IMP and the VBC and are proud to be able to continue his legacy.