Eila Cedergren-Larsson (1937-2010)


Many chemists boast that they are great cooks, but few conduct research experiments at home in their kitchen. Eila Cedergren-Larsson combined the raising of three children with her scientific work and did the most crucial experiment of her PhD in her kitchen refrigerator. There she grew crystals of alcohol dehydrogenase that were visible to the eye and diffracted X-rays to atomic resolution. Her secret ingredient was an unconventional knack for getting the simple details right and a persistence that could break an elephant's back.

Eila Cedergen-Larsson of Lund University passed away in August 2010 as the result of a stroke. She was of Finnish descent and was evacuated to Sweden during World War II as a small child. After the war, she was returned to Finland where her family put her to work in a factory. She managed to convey her situation to her Swedish foster parents who came to her rescue and brought her back to Sweden. She often related this experience to young scientists from around the world to encourage them to persevere and follow their goals.

Eila had a life-long passion for her PhD project, alcohol dehydrogenase (ADH). In 1964 under the supervision of Carl-Ivar Branden in Uppsala, she studied different states of the enzyme and determined its structure in complex with different ligands. She probed distortions in ligand geometries and found that the then current paradigm for the textbook mechanism of ADH action was flawed. She worked on many other challenging projects, including dUTPases and their potential as drug targets against Leishmania, actin and bovine profilin. These were challenging proteins to work with due to their intrinsic polymerization properties. She was always interested in developing new technologies for crystallization, such as the little dialysis chambers she made in her kitchen, as well as a levitating droplet device.

Eila was always unconventional and adventurous and she had a gift for engaging young scientists through her contagious enthusiasm. She initiated a number of protein crystallization courses, such as the PEPC course at EMBL, that are still taught today. She would put the young guns at ease before a presentation by saying, 'All those important men? Just think of them in their underpants and they all become human.'

Rob Meijers