Professor Emeritus Joe Neilands has died

It is with regret that we announce that Emeritus Professor Joe Neilands passed away peacefully on Thursday October 23rd, after several months battling an illness.

John Brian “Joe” Neilands

September 11, 1921 – October 23, 2008

J.B. Neilands was born in Glen Valley, British Columbia to Thomas Abraham Neilands and Mary Rebecca Neilands (nee Harpur), immigrants from the Belfast area of Northern Ireland. He grew up on a modest family dairy farm and saw many depression-era hobos riding the trains that ran across the farm, something that left an indelible impression upon him of the follies of rampant capitalism and concentration of wealth in the hands of the few at the expense of the many. He obtained an undergraduate degree at the University of Guelph in Ontario in 1944 where he had planned to become an agricultural representative to farmers, but an elective course in microbiology opened a new and fascinating world of micro-organisms to him. He served in World War II as a stoker, second class, aboard a submarine chaser based in Halifax and completed his master’s degree in 1946 at Dalhousie University in Halifax. He then obtained his Ph.D. in Biochemistry at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, in 1949, completed a postdoctoral fellowship in Stockholm, Sweden and then took a position as an assistant professor at UC Berkeley in 1951. In 1958 he married Juanita L’Esperance and they hand-built a house together in Berkeley.

During his scientific career J.B. Neilands published numerous scientific papers in his area of research, microbial iron transport, and mentored many graduate students and postdoctoral fellows, including Nobel Prize winner Kary Mullis (though Neilands would be the first to say that he had little to do with Mullis’s discovery). In his career Neilands published a seminal textbook, “Outlines of Enzyme Chemistry” and co-authored a text on the dangers of defoliants and herbicides (“Harvest of Death”).

J. B. Neilands in his laboratory at UC Berkeley

In 1957, Neilands was the first to note the possibility that the compound ferrichrome could act as an iron transport agent. He also launched an innovative class at Berkeley, Biochemistry and Society, that featured seminars and discussions on how biochemical discoveries impact society in both positive and negative ways. His scientific philosophy is well summarized in the preface of his 1974 edited volume “Microbial Iron Metabolism: A Comprehensive Treatise” in noting that basic scientific discoveries can be used for good or ill purposes: “It is the special responsibility of the scientist to guard against the perversion of basic information and to strive for the humanization of our profession”.

Joe was an ardent political activist. In the 1950s he participated in an effort to prevent Pacific Gas and Electric Company (PG&E) from building a nuclear reactor at Bodega Bay. This experience prompted him to learn more about the history of electric generation and distribution in California and sparked an interest in the benefits of municipal utilities. He became an ardent advocate for municipal utilities in general with a special interest in seeing municipalization of San Francisco’s utilities as promised during the creation of the Hetch Hetchy water and power systems.

Joe Neilands at June, 2001 rally in support of public power in San Francisco

He wrote a story for the SF Bay Guardian newspaper in 1969 on how PG&E has prevented San Francisco from enjoying the benefits of inexpensive electricity delivered through a municipal utility system. Recently the Guardian named this story the most influential in its 42 year history and also named Joe Neilands a local hero in 2002 for his decades of research and writing on this topic in the Guardian and elsewhere.

In the 1960s Neilands visited North Vietnam as part of the Bertrand Russell War Crimes Tribunal to document the abuses perpetrated against the North Vietnamese people by our government, including the use of anti-personnel bombs targeting civilians. As a result of the trip, federal agents came to his house and attempted to confiscate his passport and the University suspended his pay, but he successfully sued in district court to retain his passport in perpetuity and provided documentation to the University showing that the chairman of his department had granted him the personal vacation time off that he used to take the trip to Vietnam, which resulted in the reinstatement of his pay and benefits.

Joe Neilands visits North Vietnam in March, 1967 as part of the Bertrand Russell War Crimes Tribunal

In the 1970s he fought against nuclear power, in the 1980s he became a supporter of animal rights and veganism, and in the 1990s he came out against genetic engineering of food crops. When not doing biochemistry or political activism, Joe loved to work with his hands, building a country home in the Anderson Valley in the 1980s and growing vegetables in his garden, long before the ascendance of the local food movement. In 2001 at the age of 80, he designed and installed a solar energy system for his and his wife’s home in Berkeley.

Joe Neilands in his back yard with the family dog, 1980s

He is survived by his wife of 50 years, Juanita, and their son, Tor, and his wife, Dianne. Per his wishes, there will be no memorial services. In lieu of flowers, the family requests donations to the San Francisco Yes on Proposition H campaign in support of clean, municipal energy (, his favorite cause.