Harvard Genetics Scholar Dies at 79

Dr. Ruth Sager, a pioneer in the field of cancer genetics and founder of the Department of Cancer Genetics at the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, died on Saturday in her home in Brookline, Mass. She was 79.

At her death, Sager had been with Dana-Farber--which is affiliated with the Harvard Medical School (HMS)--since 1975, when she came to HMS as a professor of cellular genetics.

Sager's career spanned four decades and was instrumental to the development of cancer research. Her friends and colleagues said she will be sorely missed.

Dana-Farber President Dr. David G. Nathan called Sager a "splendid scientist and great friend" who made truly significant advances in cancer genetics.

According to Nathan, Sager's research helped to dispel the widely-held belief among scientists that genetic information is only transmitted through genes in the nucleus. In 1963 she published an article showing that genetic information is passed through genes residing on organelles in the cytoplasm as well, he said.

In the early '70s, Sager changed the course of her research from cellular genetics to cancer genetics, according to an article in the University of Chicago Magazine.

Nathan said that her research in cancer genetics indicated that cancer may result from a loss of tumor suppressor genes instead of higher "oncogenetic" activity.

Dr. Charles D. Stiles, an affiliate of the Institute who delivered a speech at a symposium last week in Sager's honor, said that Sager made an "indelible impact" on the field of genetics as well as at the Dana-Farber Institute, where she was instrumental in recruiting faculty.

He also noted that Sager's success was extraordinary, given that the attitude towards professional women was not as welcoming as it is today.

Born in Chicago, Sager got her bachelor's degree at the University of Chicago in 1938 and a doctorate from Columbia University in 1948.

In the '50s and '60s she conducted research at the Rockefeller Institute, now Rockefeller University, and continued at Columbia University. In 1966, according to Stiles, she was finally tenured at Hunter College in New York. In 1975 she came to Boston.

Sager had cancer of the bladder, according to her husband, Dr. Arthur B. Pardee. Pardee is Professor Emeritus of Biological Chemistry and Molecular Pharmacology at HMS and Chief of the Division of Cell Growth and Regulation at Dana-Farber.

Sager is also survived by two sisters, Esther Altschul of Wilmette, Ill., and Dr. Naomi Sager of Manhattan