In Memoriam: Demain, Arnold

1927-2020

Dr. Arnold Lester Demain passed away on Friday, April 3, 2020 at age 92, just shy of his 93rd birthday, from complications due to COVID-19. 

He was a wonderful man, a kind person, hard worker and loving father with a great sense of humor. A research microbiologist and university professor, he mentored several generations of scientists and doctors into his 90s and was beloved by all of them. 

Dr. Demain was born on April 26, 1927, in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. Arny graduated high school at 16 and attended Michigan State College (now University), earning Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees. At 17, during his college years, he enlisted in the Navy toward the end of the Second World War, and served in the Hospital Corps, returning to Michigan State after the war was over. 

Arny met his wife, Joanna (Kaye) Demain, at Michigan State and they were married on August 2, 1952. After receiving his Master’s degree, he attended the University of California for his Ph.D. Although he began his doctoral degree at the Berkeley campus, his Department relocated two years later to the UC campus at Davis when that campus opened and he remained there until he graduated. From there, he began a 16-year career at Merck Sharp & Dohme Research Laboratories, first in Pennsylvania and then in New Jersey, working on penicillin and other natural product research. By 1969, he was Head of the Fermentation Microbiology Department at Merck, when he was recruited by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) to become a full professor in the Nutrition and Food Science Department, which later merged into the Biology Department. He stayed at MIT until he took “early retirement” at age 75, and Arny and Jody moved to Madison, N.J., in 2000 to be near their daughter and grandchildren. 

Dr. Demain was a member of the R.I.S.E. Institute at Drew University, a research laboratory and teaching institution for retired scientists. He continued his work at Drew University, performing research and mentoring students, until May 2019, when he fully retired at age 92. Over the years, he taught and welcomed to his laboratory hundreds of students from around the world at all levels, from high school students, to undergrads and graduate students, as well as post-docs. His students were all members of “Arny’s Army and Friends,” an informal group that developed over the years beginning at MIT in the 1970s. Since his retirement from MIT, his students have held “Arny’s Army and Friends” Symposia in his honor, every 3 years, around the world. 

He had a “second career” as an expert witness in patent cases. He has written or edited many books and countless scientific articles, published in peer-reviewed journals. He was involved in the creation of the biotech industry in the early 1970s, serving as the founding consultant to the first-ever biotech company, Cetus Corp. He is the recipient of many honorary degrees and awards, including one from the King of Spain and one from the Emperor of Japan. He was selected to become a member of the National Academy of Sciences in 2000 and was on the Board of Governors for the American Academy of Microbiology. Arny would frequently take his family to attend scientific meetings around the world, often held in his honor. In 2019, Drew University established an endowed scholarship in his name to commemorate his 90th birthday. Further information about Arny’s career can be found on his Wikipedia page.

Arny passed peacefully in his sleep. He will be missed deeply by his family, colleagues and students, but they will all take solace in remembering what a happy and full life he enjoyed. The family is grateful to the hospital staff for their extraordinary care and generosity in these exceptionally trying circumstances.

A memorial service in Arny’s honor for family, friends, colleagues, and former students, will be held when it is safe to do so. Donations in his memory can be made to the Alzheimer's Foundation of America.

Read Dr. Demain's full obituary.