Editor’s Note: This article first appeared in the Winter/Spring 2021 issue of Forward magazine, which is published twice a year by Fox Chase Cancer Center.
Robert ‘Bob’ Perry: A Scientist Ahead of His Time
Robert “Bob” Perry was a pioneer in RNA research, devoting his career to the field from the earliest days of his work. His lab was one of few worldwide in the 1960s trying to understand how DNA was copied to RNA in living cells, using the simplest of tools.
“For today’s graduate students and postdocs, it is virtually impossible to imagine how important discoveries could be made with the Stone Age tools then at hand,” noted an obituary of Perry that appeared in the journal Cell.
“Bob was a scientist’s scientist, a true visionary whose work represents an unparalleled example of the value of basic research,” said Jonathan Chernoff, senior vice president at Fox Chase Cancer Center.
Perry spent the majority of his career at Fox Chase, beginning in 1960, when it was known as the Institute for Cancer Research (ICR).
A first-generation Italian-American who was fluent in Italian, Spanish, and French, Perry regularly served as a visiting professor in Europe. Perry enjoyed being a mentor. He spent time teaching molecular biology and biochemistry to graduate students at the University of Pennsylvania and worked extensively with postdoctoral fellows at Fox Chase.
Anna Marie Skalka, former director of the ICR and senior advisor to the president, recalled Perry holding weekly seminars to discuss the latest scientific articles. At those meetings, most of the young faculty quickly became aware of his reliable presence, said Skalka. They also came to know him for his intellectual rigor.
“Bob was a source of considerable anxiety when it came to giving seminars, because he would sit in the front row and ask all the tough questions, making you think critically,” said David Wiest, deputy chief scientific officer. “If he was not happy with your presentation he would immediately walk out when you were finished. So, if he stuck around after, you knew you did well.”
Just two years after joining Fox Chase, Perry had his first solo authored paper, which helped describe mammalian RNA synthesis. It was published in the prestigious journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Perry’s cutting-edge research led to his election to the U.S. National Academy of Sciences.
Perry was a founding editor of the journal Cell. He was published in its first issue in 1974 for his innovative research describing how DNA and mRNA are fundamental components of cell function, work that Chernoff said was ahead of its time. Some of the research on how mRNA is edited was ignored for decades but is now the subject of intense interest.
Perry became leader of the Cell and Developmental Biology Program at Fox Chase and was the first recipient of the Stanley P. Reimann Endowed Chair in Oncology Research, named after the founder of the ICR. A year later he was awarded the Stanley P. Reimann Honor Award.
Perry retired from Fox Chase in 2004 to spend more time with his wife of 57 years, Zoila. He had fond memories of his time at ICR and Fox Chase, which he described as a place that “enables scientists to achieve prestige as individual investigators, and at the same time, to develop a pride in the institution. Together these things make a happy life.”
Perry died July 15, 2013.