Known as Elio to friends and acquaintances, Schaechter was born in Milan, Italy, of Polish Jewish parents. In late 1940, they emigrated safely to Ecuador, where he attended high school and a few years of medical school. In 1950, he came to the US, becoming a graduate student at the University of Kansas and then getting a Ph.D. at the University of Pennsylvania working in microbial cytology, as it was then called. He married Barbara and had two children: Judy is a famed stained glass artist whose work can be seen here. John works at the Zoo in Boston and is an avid rock climber and runner. Barbara, alas, died of cancer at the age of 56 after 33 years of marriage. In 1994, Elio married a childhood sweetheart, Edith and, thanks to her, retired and moved to San Diego in 1995.
After getting a Ph.D., Elio got drafted into the Army and was called upon to “fight the Battle of the Potomac,” at the Walter Reed Army Institute of Research. Working under Joe Smadel, he determined that rickettsiae, the agents of various kinds of typhus, divide by binary fission, thus are bacteria. Also, he found that rickettsiae have a cell wall, much like ordinary bacteria.
Schaechter did a postdoc with Ole Maaløe in Copenhagen, at the inception of the Copenhagen School of Growth Physiology. Together with Nils Ole Kjeldgaard, they discovered that Salmonella exists in a continuum of physiological states, depending on the growth rate. Slow growing bugs are small and have few ribosomes, and the converse is true when they grow rapidly. They also did a number of "shifts" back and forth between rich and poor media. In an unrelated study, Schaechter also found out that relatively fast growing E. coli make DNA throughout the cell cycle.
Schaechter’s first job was at the medical school of the U. of Florida. In 1962, he went to Tufts in Boston and stayed there for 33 years. With collaborators, he worked on a number of issues related to growth and cell division. For example, they discovered that bacteria possess polyribosomes and that these contain mRNA. After a prolonged sally into lipid metabolism, his lab worked assiduously on the role of the cell membrane in DNA synthesis and chromosome segregation. The last major discovery in his lab was that E. coli’s origin of chromosome replication sticks to the cell membrane, but does so only when recently synthesized. Under this condition, this region of the chromosome is half methylated (the old strand is methylated, the new strand not yet). They also found that methylation of this region is much delayed relative to the rest of the DNA. He trained 6 Ph.D. students and 32 postdoctoral fellows. He chaired the Department of Molecular Biology and Microbiology at Tufts for 23 years.
Schaechter co-edited or wrote a bunch of books, textbooks and reference works:
Molecular Biology of Bacterial Growth
Mechanisms of Microbial
Disease (with others, a textbook for medical students, now called Schaechter’s Mechanisms of….”)
coli and Salmonella Cellular and Molecular Biology (a treatise on these organisms, 2nd edition)
An Electronic Companion To
of Microbiology (editor-in-chief, 3rd edition)
Desk Encyclopedia of Microbiology (editor-in-chief)
Physiology of the Bacterial Cell
(with FC Neidhardt and JL Ingraham)
Microbe (with M. Swanson, G. Reguera, and F. Neidhardt, an undergraduate textbook, 2nd edition)
Topics in Ecological and Environmental Microbiology (with T. Schmidt)
In the Company of Microbes – Ten Years of Small Things Considered
Main honors (some deserved) and activities
Tufts University. Distinguished Professor, 1987
Tufts Univ. Med. Students' Teaching Award, (awarded 11 times) ’73- ‘94
Fellow, American Academy of Microbiology, 1974-present
President, Association of Medical School Microbiology Chairmen, 1984-1985
President, American Society for Microbiology, 1985-86
Honorary Member, Spanish Society for Microbiology, 1991
Byron Waksman Award for Excellence in the Public Communication in Microbiology, 2011
Honorary Member, American Society for Microbiology, 2013
Life outside the lab
Schaechter’s hobbies include studying wild mushrooms and, when he had better legs, hiking. He edited the Bulletin of the Boston Mycological Club from 1973 to 1995 and received two major awards for Contributions to Amateur Mycology in 1991 and 1993. He also helped found the San Diego Mycological Society. In 1997, he wrote a book on mushrooms
"In the Company of Mushrooms", published by Harvard University Press
What is he doing now?
Between writing a blog, participating in the podcast This Week in Microbiology, doing some lecturing, attending journal clubs, consulting, editing, and writing, Schaechter stay quite busy. Friends have suggested that in order not to work so hard he should un-retire. He still suffers from
cacoethes scribendi, the itch of writing.