Noosa, Australia, 2002: John F. Kerr

John Kerr had been studying liver pathology since the mid-1960’s, paying attention as were others to the activity of lysosomes in cell death. In these studies he began to notice certain consistent patterns that he could not explain. For instance, although the movement of ions and water could explain cell lysis, or necrosis, in cells that had lost energy resources, some cells shrank and became dense cells with dark, compacted nuclei. Furthermore, this type of death was found not only in liver cells but in many other types of pathology, an idea that he summarized in 1971 as shrinkage necrosis (Shrinkage necrosis: a distinct mode of cellular death. Kerr JF. J Pathol. 1971 Sep;105(1):13-20).

Shortly thereafter he departed on sabbatical to Scotland, where he met and compared notes with Andrew Wyllie and Alastair R. Currie. They concluded that the phenomenon was quite general and implied a new biology of cell death, unknown at the time but surely as important as the biology of cell division. They consulted a Classics scholar seeking a suitable parallel to “mitosis” and found a term that would excite the imagination of pathologists, developmental biologists, and cell and molecular biologists throughout the world.Their description of the phenomenon and its name was published in 1972: Apoptosis: a basic biological phenomenon with wide-ranging implications in tissue kinetics. Kerr JF, Wyllie AH, Currie AR. Br J Cancer. 1972 Aug;26(4):239-57.

Two hundred thousand publications later, we can agree that this paper represented a profound insight.