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  • Writer's pictureFrancisco Martinez

Ex-resident Robert Langridge was a pioneer in molecular computergraphics

Robert Langridge, a 20-year Belvedere resident who pioneered the field of molecular computer graphics, died Nov. 11 at his home in Berkeley. He was 90.

 

Langridge’s work brought biological experimentation and drug discovery into a new era, according to the University of California at San Francisco’s pharmacy school. He was one of the first scientists to use computers to visualize molecular interactions, paving the way for their use in the field with a career that led him to oversee the institution’s computer-graphics lab.

 

Langridge and colleagues Peter Kollman and Irwin “Tack” Kuntz were awarded the university’s highest honor, the UCSF Medal, in 2018 for their collaboration in pioneering their research fields.

 

“If you want to see with your own eyes the results of Bob’s work, pick out any magazine, video or movie dealing with science or with many other features of everyday life,” Kuntz, a professor emeritus in pharmaceutical chemistry, said in the university-produced obituary.

 

Robert Langridge was born Oct. 26, 1933, in Froyle, England, a village 35 miles north of the southern port city of Portsmouth. Lang­ridge’s Welsh mother worked as a maid, while his father was a gardener, eventually serving as gardener for the village’s largest estate. Langridge was the first in his family to pursue higher education, studying at the University of London for his undergraduate and doctoral work, said his wife, Ruth Lang­ridge, a water-use policy researcher at the University of California at Santa Cruz.

 

He graduated from the university in 1954 with a bachelor’s in physics, earning first-class honors, the highest classification for bachelor’s degrees in the U.K. In 1957, Langridge earned his doctorate in crystallography.

 

His doctoral dissertation, which focused on X-ray crystallographic, modeling and computational studies of DNA’s structure, involved the first use of a computer program to analyze the structure of DNA. Langridge’s doctoral adviser was Maurice Wilkins, the 1962 Nobel laureate who shared the medicine prize with James Watson and Francis Crick for discovering DNA’s structure.

 

Wilkins had been capturing X-ray diffraction photos of molecules, which allowed him to “get a sense of what the structure was,” Ruth said. Watson and Crick later saw Wilkins’ photos and came up with their model that showed how it could replicate as genetic material.

 

Langridge arrived following Watson and Crick’s hypothesis on the model, and he captured “one of the very best X-ray diffraction photos,” Ruth said. The quality of the photo allowed Langridge to tweak the model and refine the data, “putting a final stamp on that structure,” she said.

 

The same year he earned his doctorate, Langridge moved to the U.S. to continue his career. He held postdoctoral positions at Yale University in New Haven, Connecticut, from 1957 to 1959 and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology from 1959 to 1961. Langridge remained in the Boston area, setting up a lab in 1961 to study DNA and virus structures at the Children’s Cancer Research Foundation,  now the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute; he was also a faculty member at Harvard University and Harvard Medical School.

 

While at Harvard, Langridge also worked on molecular graphics at MIT as part of the university’s Project MAC, which aimed to allow users from various locations to access programs on a central computer. The project became one of the building blocks of online collaboration and modern computer networking.

 

In a 2002 interview with Stanford University bioengineering professor Russ Altman, Langridge highlighted the challenges of early computer modeling, including during his time working on Project MAC, noting how little lines appeared on the monitor.

 

“You couldn’t draw many lines and still move them in three dimensions,” Langridge said. “It wasn’t until quite a bit later that you could draw large and complex pictures and rotate them in three dimensions — better yet, look at them in stereo.”

 

In 1966, he was a biophysics professor at the University of Chicago, but in 1968 he joined Princeton University to become a chemistry and biochemical sciences professor. The next year, he established the university’s Computer Graphics Laboratory, later taking his work and the facility to UCSF in 1976.

 

The Langridges and their three children — Elizabeth, Catherine and Suzanne — settled in Belvedere that same year, living in a small home on Leeward Road, where the daughters spent their formative years, Ruth said. The couple left in 1996, spending time in Oregon, before eventually moving to Berkeley, where Langridge lived until his death.

 

While at UCSF, Langridge’s work in the lab saw the first three-dimensional, rotatable pictures of molecular interactions; the new technology meant scientists could identify different chemical components and proteins, the university said.

 

“He had to build everything from the ground up, which required a lot of bravery on his part,” said Tom Ferrin, a professor of pharmaceutical chemistry, to the university. He took over as laboratory director after Lang­ridge’s retirement in 1994.

 

In addition to his accomplishments in his field, Langridge’s work led him to rub shoulders with film-industry pioneers. Langridge met Pixar co-founder Edwin Catmull while he was finishing up his computer-science doctorate at the University of Utah, and he later worked at the New York Institute of Technology as its Computer Graphics Lab director.

 

In the early 1980s, Langridge said he received a call from Catmull, saying he and his work colleague, Alvy Ray Smith, were heading to the Bay Area “to join an operation with somebody named Lucas, who’s setting out a mock operation in Marin County.”

 

Catmull, who had since left the New York Institute of Technology, said the computers he and Smith needed had a six-month lead time before delivery. He asked Langridge if they could use his computers.

 

Langridge agreed, allowing Smith and Catmull, who were working for Industrial Light & Magic — the George Lucas-owned visual effects company — to use the computers at UCSF for six months.

 

“And it was one of the best things we could possibly have done,” Langridge said in his conversation with Altman. “We learned a huge amount.”

 

Later, Catmull called up Langridge and asked if he could send someone to film him using his computers as the screens showed flying DNA for a movie he was working on. Langridge again agreed, and the footage was used in the genesis sequence in the 1982 film “Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan.”

 

Langridge said it was exciting to work on a major motion picture, and wife Ruth said the family attended the movie’s premiere, standing up and cheering as they saw her husband’s name appear as the credits rolled.

 

Outside of Langridge’s work, Ruth remembers her husband as easygoing and charming, with a good sense of humor.

 

“He was very smart, but not somebody who wore that intelligence on him, you know, overtly,” she said. “It just came through.”

 

Langridge’s hobbies included a love of flying, having his pilot’s license and almost choosing to work as a pilot — so much so that he started university late, Ruth said. During the family’s time at Princeton, the couple loved soaring and did plenty of it, she added. Langridge was also keen on classical music — he appreciated the technical prowess of Franz Liszt and Frédéric Chopin — and was an avid reader and writer. During the family’s time in Belvedere, Ruth said they loved to take walks on the island to enjoy the physical beauty of the city and community.

 

In addition to describing Langridge as a scientific pioneer who supported his colleagues, Ruth said her husband was also extremely supportive of his family.

 

He was a devoted father and husband who encouraged their children and herself, Ruth said, in their endeavors. Langridge told the Smithsonian in 2005 that after he retired, he took classes on ancient Greece’s archaeology to speak with his daughter Elizabeth, who was then working as an archaeologist in Greece, about her work.

 

In another show of support, when Ruth decided to return to school and pursue a new career path, her husband decided to move to Oregon as Ruth began her master’s degree at Oregon State University.

 

“I don’t think I could have ever taken that move without the kind of support he provided for me … thinking of me as a really smart individual over the years made me think of myself that way,” she said, also calling her husband “the best thing that ever happened to me.”

 

In addition to his wife, Langridge is survived by three daughters: Elizabeth, who now works in global affairs at the University of California at San Diego; Catherine, the Presidio Trust’s chief financial officer; and Suzanne, an ecologist who directs the Paulson Ecology of Place Initiative at Wellesley College in Wellesley, Massachusetts. He is also survived by five grandchildren. Details of a memorial service are still being planned.

 

Reach Tiburon reporter Francisco Martinez at 415-944-4634.

 


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