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Smith brothers, both MU professors, bond through academics

Friday, May 17, 2013 | 6:00 a.m. CDT; updated 10:43 a.m. CDT, Friday, May 17, 2013
Brothers George Smith, left, and A. Mark Smith talk outside of Read Hall in late April. The brothers work in different departments at MU, but both are being designated as curators' professors, a prestigious honor recognizing outstanding scholars with established reputations in their fields.

COLUMBIA — As an 11-year-old living on an Army base in Sagamihara, Japan, George Smith spent his spare time collecting snakes and butterflies.

His brother, A. Mark Smith, a year and nine months younger than George, spent more time in the Ginza district of Yokohama, playing a pinball-like game called patchinko. Mark also favored medieval history; while other kids memorized baseball statistics, he memorized the names of English kings and queens from 1066 to 1603.

Nearly 50 years later, the brothers are well-known professionally in areas they were interested in as children. Both are curators' professors, an appointed position in the University of Missouri System.The appointment is a prestigious honor recognizing outstanding scholars with established reputations in their fields.

George, a biological sciences professor, found a practical use for technology now commonly used in the drug industry and academics. His discovery changed how people thought, MU biochemistry professor Frank Schmidt said.

Mark, a history professor, is best known for studying visual perception theories until the 1600s and how they influenced ideas about how people understood the world through sensory perception. He's considered to be one of the top historians studying optics in the world, MU history professor John Bullion said.

As children, the Smith brothers didn't see themselves as having much in common. "We hated each other," Mark deadpanned before breaking into a smile. It's something you see in each brother — that deadpan, followed by a smile or laughter.

George, sitting next to his brother at the Catalyst Cafe in the Bond Life Sciences Center, laughed. "Oh, we didn't really hate each other," he said.

It was a common sibling relationship: George and Mark hung out at home, but they they were two years apart in school and had different sets of friends. Years later, though, academic interests would bring them closer.

The brothers and their sister, Helen, moved a lot because their father, who also went by A. Mark Smith, was a career Army officer. George's best guess is that he attended 12 or 13 schools, primarily on the East Coast, before graduating high school.

Their father left the U.S. for Japan in 1951. The family followed in 1952, returning two years later.

"I didn't want to come back to the States," Mark said. "I loved it."

After high school, George went to Haverford College in Pennsylvania. After teaching high school in fall 1963, he attended Harvard University, where he earned his doctorate in bacteriology and immunology in 1970.

Mark, a self-described "indifferent" student as a child, attended St. John's College in Maryland, earning a bachelor's degree in liberal arts. The Great Books Program curriculum included reading works by authors such as Euclid and Isaac Newton. It also included performing science experiments such as Albert Einstein's photoelectric effect experiment — experiences that would be pivotal for Mark.

Living in Wisconsin

After St. John's, Mark went into the Army, where he worked with electronics and circuitry during the Vietnam War. That gave him the discipline to continue his education. After he got out of the service, Mark wanted to study the history of science, and one of the top programs was at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, where George was a postdoctoral fellow.

Mark had missed the deadline to apply for graduate school there in 1970. But while visiting his brother, Mark went to see the chairman of the History of Science Department. Impressed in part by Mark's undergraduate experience at St. John's, the chairman let him in.

"By hook and crook, I managed to get them to accept me," Mark said.

The brothers first lived in Madison separately. But when the bottom floor of George's house became vacant, Mark moved in. It became the brothers' house, and that was where they especially began to recognize their common intellectual interests.

George's postdoctoral training was in molecular immunology with Oliver Smithies, a future Nobel Prize winner in physiology or medicine, and Mark studied medieval history and the history of science. They often had arguments about high-brow philosophical issues such as the Chinese room paradox, which refutes claims that artificial intelligence exists.<

"He still doesn't have the right opinion," George said, with that deadpan again.

After five years at Wisconsin, George came to MU in 1975 as an assistant professor of biological sciences.

A year later, Mark earned a joint doctorate in medieval history and the history of science from Wisconsin. He taught at Brandeis University in Massachusetts for three years. He then spent a year as a member at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, N.J., before spending a year in Toronto as a research associate at the Pontifical Institute of Mediaeval Studies. After he moved back to the U.S., he joined the faculty at the University of California-Riverside.

Then, in 1986, he got a job at MU as an associate professor of history.

"I had no clue he was applying," George said. "I heard from Jerry Barrier, who was the chair of the History Department at the time."

The gentleman scientist

George, 72, is best known for being the first to find a practical use for phage display, technology that allows one to search through protein structures to find specific proteins. It's commonly used in the drug industry and academics.

Scientists used to put molecules into their purest form and study them individually, but George took a different approach in that he made a wide variety of molecules and only purified the ones that worked best, Schmidt said. George also figured out how to create the large library of molecules necessary to do this.

"George's genius is his ability to see through to the end as well as the possibilities and technology," Schmidt said.

He described George as intensely collaborative.

"I think of him as an old-time gentleman scientist," Schmidt said. "He's much more interested in science than a personal agenda."

In 2001, George was invited to speak at a conference in Stockholm celebrating the 100th anniversary of the Nobel Prize in chemistry, which was associated with the Nobel Prizes given that year.

George is passionate about teaching science, said Marjorie Sable, his wife and director of the MU School of Social Work. He is highly involved as the freshman coordinator of the Mathematics in Life Sciences program at MU. Funded by the National Science Foundation, the two-year program includes a Freshman Interest Group and provides students with special coursework and research opportunities.

George starts by meeting with students at MU's Summer Welcome, making sure they have correct information about the program. He also eats with them every week, is the faculty instructor of the Freshman Interest Group and teaches the group's biology lab section.

"He's very involved with the students and incredibly engaged and committed to their learning," Sable said. "I've never met anyone who spends as much time on teaching as he does."

The witty word nerd

Mark, 70, is best known for his work in visual theory from Greek antiquity until the early Enlightenment Period. This includes, not only how people understood vision, but also how the eye and body have adapted to light and how that's then translated into perceptions, sensations and conceptions. He particularly looks at how Arabic theories influenced how people in medieval times thought.

Bullion, the history professor, said Mark is one of the most visionary academics he's ever met. He's concerned about the future of higher education and how his department should plan for it, Bullion said.

"It's a sign of Mark's commitment to the university, department and students that he's deeply concerned about what they're going to do in the future," Bullion said.

Students can find Mark intimidating, said Lois Huneycutt, his wife and the director of graduate studies in the History Department.

"People are constantly coming to me — and because we have different last names, they don't know we're married — and they say he has a reputation for being tough," Huneycutt said, laughing. "When they find out we're married, they're embarrassed."

Mark is known for having a large vocabulary, which is something their kids picked up, Huneycutt said. "They said 'detritus' instead of 'trash' at 3 years old."

The secretaries in the History Department office even created a game: the Dr. Smith Word of the Week.

This reputation earned him the title of "word nerd" as a finalist in the 2009 Nerds of Mizzou competition. "It's something our kids are proud of," Huneycutt said.

Bullion said Mark's "wicked and ingenious sense of humor" extends into academics:

He once gave a fictional lecture at an international conference in which he argued that only those who handled money died in the Middle Ages and that everyone today dies because everyone handles money. Mark ended the lecture with Benjamin Franklin's quote, "The only things certain in life are death and taxes," explaining that because money is used to pay taxes, everyone dies.

"The audience thought it was hilarious," Bullion said. "The lecture was supposed to be fun, but Mark took it to a whole new level."

Family and fun

The brothers met their wives and started their families in Columbia.

George met Sable in 1979 during the designated MU staff swimming time at a now-demolished pool on the corner of Maryland Avenue and Rollins Street. They used to swim together several times a week, Sable said.

They got married two years later, in 1981. They have two children: Alex, 27, is a third-year medical student at MU, and Bram, 25, is participating in the Coro Fellows Program in Public Affairs in St. Louis. 

Mark met Huneycutt, an MU associate professor of history, in 1984 when she was a student in one of his classes. Huneycutt had returned to school after working for the police department. She said that after taking four or five of Mark's classes, there was an attraction between them.

"He said if I stopped taking his classes, then he would ask me out," Huneycutt said, laughing.

They got married in 1990. They also have two children: Derek, 21, works at the Starbucks off East Broadway and is a part-time MU student, and Aubrey, 17, is a junior at Rock Bridge High School.

The brothers' mother, Jessie Smith, joined the families in Columbia in 1995. Until she died in 2000, the family gathered for dinner each week at George's house on East Parkway Drive. The families continued their frequent get-togethers while their children lived at home.

The families also have vacationed together, visiting places such as Rome; New York;  Moab, Utah; and Phoenix, Ariz., home to Helen Boyd, the brothers' sister.

"It's unusual for academics that cousins grow up knowing each other," Huneycutt said. "I'm glad they've grown up with a sense of extended family."

Mark, who loves to travel, he took his younger son to the Grand Canyon last year so he could experience the Southwest.

"To me, it was me retracing old steps and old memories but also showing him stuff he'd never seen so he could share my memories," Mark said.

George has been an activist for Palestinian rights for the past 10 years. He's had opinion pieces published in the Columbia Daily Tribune and has helped organize demonstrations.

The brothers both have musical backgrounds. Mark used to play 16th- and 17th-century lute music on the guitar. He, George and others at Wisconsin would get together and sing madrigals.

George helped start the Ad Hoc Singers, now called the Columbia Chorale, in 1978 as a bass. Now, he is a tenor.

George said that, as the 11-year-old in Japan, he would have been surprised at how much he, the "quintessential nerd," and his brother, the "wannabe jock," would connect intellectually in adulthood.

The brothers still get into arguments, but they do because they have differing views on the solution to a problem they both recognize as important, such as that Chinese room paradox.

Mark said he wouldn't have even tried to tell his childhood self anything about the brothers' relationship. As a father, he knows children won't listen, he deadpanned.

Supervising editor is Elizabeth Brixey.


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