1062-3604/04/3506- © 2004
Russian Journal of Developmental Biology, Vol. 35, No. 6, 2004, pp. 391–393. Translated from Ontogenez, Vol. 35, No. 6, 2004, pp. 476–478.
Original Russian Text Copyright © 2004 by Sander.
Walter Gehring no doubt counts among the most
inﬂuential developmental biologists of our time. He is
a ﬁtting recipient of the Kowalevsky Medal because
molecular insights achieved by him and his collabora-
tors have fundamentally promoted our understanding
of the relations between development and evolution,
the topic pioneered by Alexander Kowalevsky almost
one and a half century ago.
Gehring, born 1939 in Zürich, Switzerland, was ﬁrst
attracted to biology during his childhood, on witnessing
the eclosion of a butterﬂy from its pupa. As a high
school student, his attention was caught by annual bird
migration. He participated in early tests to track birds at
night by radar, and for his Master’s thesis he studied
autumnal migration over a high pass in the Swiss alps;
the radar equipment he managed to borrow from the
Swiss army, an institution interwoven with the public
more than any other army in the world. He paid back his
debt by showing the radar experts that one not only can
track down migrating birds, but even distinguish their
signals from those generated by ﬂying insects!
Gehring’s continuing engagement with bird life will be
remembered by any one lucky enough to participate in
his annual ornithological excursions or, like the present
author, in a New England ﬁeld trip. But Gehring’s inter-
est in general biology is not restricted to birds. This is
best documented by his co-authorship in several edi-
tions of the most successful zoology textbook in the
German language, founded by Alfred Köhn (one of the
pioneers of developmental genetics) and continued by
Gehring’s mentor Ernst Hadorn.
For his Ph.D. work at Zürich University, Walter
Gehring shifted to quite different topic, despairing of
any possibility to analyze bird orientation experimen-
tally. The new topic was developmental genetics of the
, and his adviser was Ernst Hadorn,
one of the few people convinced early on that ontogen-
esis must entirely depend on the activities of genes.
Hadorn had just discovered that isolated larval blaste-
mas can change their course of development if kept in
culture for long periods of time. Consequently, Gehring
set out to further analyze this “transdetermination” pro-
cess. In doing so, he hit on a fruit ﬂy mutant that carried
complete legs in place of its antennae (Fig. 1). He
called it “Nasobemia,” alluding thereby to the
“Nasobem,” a ﬁctional animal that walked on its multi-
ple noses, conceived by the German poet Morgenstern.
, or rather its weaker, but more tractable,
, was to become sort of a lodestar
for Walter Gehring’s future career.
Consequently, Gehring aimed at understanding the
effects of “homeotic” genes like
molecular level, a task seemingly beyond reach at that
time. In order to try nonetheless, he moved to Yale Uni-
versity and Alan Garen as his superviser. There, within
a year or two, he rose from postdoc to the rank of asso-
ciate professor. In 1972, at the age of 33, he went back
to Switzerland, to serve as a full professor in the
nascent Biozentrum at Basel.
The work begun at Yale was a bold enterprise in
those days, because only genes coding for enzymes
were generally considered worthwhile studying; more-
over, hardly any gene products could be localized in
eggs or early embryos. Gehring approached the local-
ization problem by checking the morphogenetic capac-
ity of cell aggregates, this time not from imaginal discs
but from the uniform blastodermal cell layer of fruit ﬂy
embryos. Together with a student, he proved that the
uniform cells from different regions of the blastoderm
were already determined to develop into different body
parts later on—obviously the blastoderm carried an
Laudatio for Walter Gehring, Kowalevsky-Medaillist 2003
Institut für Biologie 1 (Zoologie) der Universitét Waupstrasse 1 D 79104 Freiburg Deutschland
Walter Gehring’s drawing of the head of a
heterozygous for the
allele, showing at the
left a complete leg in place of the antenna, and at the right
an intermediate transformation (from Gehring, W., Arch. J.
Klaus Stiftung, 1966, vol. 41, pp. 44–54).