Joan Lucia Countryman Suit passed away on May 21, 2021, at the age of 90 while going for a walk in the woods near her home in Weston, MA. She is survived by her husband, Herman Suit, his nephews Daniel, David and Charles, Joan’s niece Gail, nephews Jerry, Evan, and Mark, and their extended families totaling 39 great-nieces and nephews.
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Joan was born on her parents’ fruit and dairy farm near Ontario, a small town in eastern Oregon on April 14, 1931. She helped run the farm from an early age and was encouraged to roam independently around the countryside on her horse. She loved all animals and her mother’s love for botany sparked her interest in nature and science. She especially looked up to her sister, Jean, who was older by 13 years, had studied microbiology at Oregon State University and worked for Cutter laboratories during WWII, producing the new miracle drug, penicillin. Her parents encouraged her to pursue her studies and a career. Beginning her education in a two-room schoolhouse in the countryside, she worked her way to OSU and on to Stanford University.
When Joan started her career as a scientist in the 1950s, molecular biologists had just begun to discover that DNA was the primary genetic material in bacteria and the powerful tools of biotechnology and DNA sequencing were still in the distant future. After graduating with a degree in microbiology from Oregon State University, Joan headed to Stanford University to study for a doctorate in microbiology. Her studies at Stanford, focused on viruses that infect bacteria, led to her becoming an early pioneer in the field of bacterial genetics and molecular biology.
She enjoyed a rewarding career as a scientist for more than three decades at some of the top institutions in the country, making important contributions to virology. Beginning her research career as a postdoctoral fellow at Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee, Joan went on to spend nearly 15 years at MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston, where she continued her work on DNA and viruses.
She married Herman Suit, a radiation oncologist, in 1960. Later, the couple moved to Boston when Herman was offered a position at Massachusetts General Hospital and Harvard Medical School. Many of Joan’s scientific accomplishments came during her tenure as a senior research scientist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) where she worked in the biology lab of Dr. Salvador Luria, who won the 1969 Nobel Prize in Medicine and Physiology. Joan was at MIT from 1972 until her retirement in 1989.
In her retirement, Joan spent her time volunteering at the MGH Cancer Center and serving as a board trustee and docent at the Museum of Science in Boston, exploring interesting places at home and abroad, cultivating a massive garden, going for long nature walks with Herman, and continuing to show up for harvest days back in Oregon at the family farm.
Joan and her husband Herman have been deeply committed to giving in support of education and research in
science and medicine. At Oregon State University, they have supported science students through the SURE Science scholarships, which enable motivated undergraduates to pursue summer research projects and the Joan Countryman Suit Scholarship for microbiology graduate students. They have also participated in making possible a new state-of-the-art anatomy and physiology teaching lab at OSU.
Additionally, Joan and Herman have been active supporters of the Whitehead Institute at MIT, the University of
Houston College of Natural Sciences and Mathematics and they have established the Joan and Herman Suit Fund of Programs at the Museum of Science, Boston. Joan has stated that “education is the most important thing we can support because that is where the future lies, and science is extremely important for the progress of our society and to seek answers to all sorts of questions.”
From her childhood on the farm and throughout her life, Joan was surrounded and delighted by her warm, active, multi-generational family and community of friends and colleagues who have greatly admired her unassuming generosity, fun-loving, adventurous nature, and enquiring spirit.
Donations and remembrances may be made in Joan’s name to the Joan and Herman Suit Fund of Programs,
Museum of Science, Boston.