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Originally published December 23, 2009 at 8:49 PM | Page modified December 23, 2009 at 10:18 PM

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Edwin G. Krebs, winner of 1992 Nobel Prize for Medicine, dies

Dr. Edwin G. Krebs, a University of Washington scientist who won the 1992 Nobel Prize in Medicine, died Monday. He was 91.

Times higher education reporter

When Eddy Fischer and Dr. Edwin G. Krebs won the 1992 Nobel Prize in Medicine, Fischer said their success was because "Two Eds are better than one."

But the high-powered professional collaboration and deep personal friendship that developed between the two University of Washington professors — and endured for more than 60 years — came to an end this week.

Dr. Krebs died Monday (Dec. 21) after a long battle with progressive heart failure. He was 91.

"It marks the end of an extraordinary and wonderful friendship," Fischer, 89, said Wednesday. "It's difficult to accept. But this is biology, and there's nothing you can do about it."

Fischer said he and his colleague became so in tune with one another over four decades working together that one of them could leave during the middle of an experiment and have no qualms having the other complete it.

"People don't believe me, but in the time we worked together, we never had a fight. We had disagreements over scientific subjects, but never, ever a fight," Fischer said. "Many people can be excellent scientists, but not many people can be, at the same time, real gentlemen. And he was the epitome of a gentleman."

The two Eds won the Nobel Prize for a discovery they made in the early 1950s. They found that a chemical reaction with phosphate (phosphorylation) can activate an enzyme in muscle cells. Call it a biological switch. In subsequent decades, the discovery was found to have far-reaching applications, including in the development of anti-cancer drugs.

"What we found was nearly an embarrassingly simple reaction. Nobody paid much attention, but it turned out to be crucial," Fischer said. "These days, there's not a pharmaceutical house or biotech company that doesn't have an eye on those reactions."

After making their initial breakthrough, the two scientists continued studying the effects of phosphorylation and made another big breakthrough in the late 1960s when they discovered that phosphorylation was involved in the action of many hormones.

"When you start on a new subject and take it in a new direction, something new is found just about every day," Fischer said. "It was a wonderful time."

Dr. Krebs was born in Lansing, Iowa. His dad, a minister, died when he was 15, during the Great Depression. His mother, determined to give her four children a college education despite the family's modest income, moved the family to Urbana, Ill., so the children could live at home and attend college, and she could take in renters.

Dr. Krebs met his future wife, Deedy, in 1944 when she was training to be a nurse and he was a medical resident at Washington University in St. Louis. Soon after they married, Dr. Krebs left for World War II as a medical officer with the Navy.

"He was very mature, 5 ½ years older, and I was impressed with what a nice person he was," said Deedy Krebs, 86.

The couple moved to Seattle when Dr. Krebs took a faculty position at the UW School of Medicine in 1948.

They loved to collect antiques, and Dr. Krebs accumulated 600 lamp shades, his widow said. In keeping with his scientific habits, his wife said, her husband took as much joy from meticulously photographing and cataloging all his shades as he did from buying them.

Dr. Krebs' immediate family is gathering for a pizza feast today to celebrate his life, said Deedy Krebs, while the UW is planning to host a memorial service, with details yet to be finalized.

Remembrances may be made to the UW Krebs professorship through the UW Foundation at: UW Medicine Advancement, 815 Mercer St. C-5, Box 358045, Seattle, WA 98109.

Besides his wife, Dr. Krebs is survived by his children Sally Herman, of Salem, Ore.; Robert Krebs, of Seattle; and Martha Abrego, of Shoreline. He is also survived by five grandchildren and five great-grandchildren. The latest great-grandchild was born in August and named Edwin, in honor of Dr. Krebs.

Information from the University of Washington is included in this report. Nick Perry: 206-515-5639 or nperry@seattletimes.com

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