Remembrance of Professor Piotr Węgleński

Professor Piotr Węgleński was born on June 29, 1939 in Świdniki in the Lublin region, into a family with rich patriotic traditions. One of his ancestors was Jan Węgleński, the Minister of Treasury of the Kingdom of Poland, who contributed significantly to the establishment of the University of Warsaw in 1816.

He was a graduate of the Secondary School named after Hugo Kołłątaj in Warsaw. He has been associated with the University of Warsaw since 1956, when he started studies at the Faculty of Biology and Earth Sciences. He completed an internship at the legendary Department of Genetics at the University of Warsaw, founded and managed at that time by an outstanding geneticist, the “father of Polish genetics”, Professor Wacław Gajewski. In 1961, he defended his master’s thesis on the genetics and cytology of Tetrigidae, written under the supervision of Professor Gajewski. From then on, his entire professional career, from assistantship, through doctorate (1965), habilitation (1974), associate professor (1982), to full professor (1989), was associated with the University of Warsaw.

Professor Węgleński was an outstanding geneticist, the author of numerous scientific publications, mainly on the regulation of gene functions and the use of genetic engineering tools to investigate the basis of life. He was the scientific editor of the textbook Molecular Genetics, which is still a basic reference for subsequent generations of not only students of biology, medicine and related fields, but is equally eagerly used by biology teachers. He managed important research projects, often of an applied nature, regarding, among others: constructing strains of bacteria to produce human insulin and human growth hormone, or (together with a team from the Warsaw University of Technology) developing a computer using the reactions of DNA molecules.

In the 1970s, he completed numerous research internships in Great Britain (John Innes Center in Norwich), the USA (Massachusetts Institute of Technology) and France (Université Paris XI). His stays abroad gave him the opportunity to learn about the emerging field of genetic engineering. As a teacher he became famous, among others: a visionary introduction of its methods in Poland. For several years, the Department of Genetics at the University of Warsaw was the only research institution in the country where these techniques were used.

From 2012, he headed the Laboratory of Paleogenetics and Conservation Genetics at the Centre of New Technologies of the University of Warsaw, where, together with his dynamic, young research group, he used advanced population genetics methods to study the evolutionary history of animals, unravel the secrets of the origin of the Polish population or the history of pre-Columbian civilizations. in South America. These works, due to the nature of their multi-faceted subject matter, were carried out successfully in domestic and foreign cooperation with archaeologists, anthropologists and population geneticists.

In recent years, he gradually gave up his current scientific work, giving more and more freedom to his younger colleagues. However, he remained involved in the team’s work until the end. The project of reconstructing the history of the people living in prehistory in the lands of modern Poland, which he led, was extremely important to him. He often stopped by the Laboratory and asked, “What do you have for me today?” Is there anything for me to do?” Always willing to help. Active until the end.

Professor Piotr Węgleński was a member of many scientific societies and committees, including a member of the Warsaw Scientific Society and a full national member of the Polish Academy of Sciences. In recognition of his great scientific achievements, he was awarded an honorary doctorate by the universities in Sofia, Ivanofrankivsk, Arequipa and Podgorica.

Organizational sense of prof. Węgleński was visible during his numerous university functions. He headed the Department of Genetics, served as director of the Institute of Genetics and Biotechnology and deputy director of the Institute of Botany. He was the vice-rector of the University of Warsaw for many years, and in the years 1999–2005, the rector of the University of Warsaw. Later, he contributed significantly to the creation and development of the Centre for New Technologies, where he served as director in 2012-2017.

He also held organizational functions outside the University. He was, among others, chairman of the Conference of Rectors of Warsaw Universities and vice-chairman of the Conference of Rectors of Academic Schools in Poland. He was awarded the Commander’s Cross of the Order of Polonia Restituta and the Brazilian Commander’s Cross of the Order of the Southern Cross.

Professor Węgleński was a brave man who did not hesitate to speak out in public discussions on socially and scientifically important, often controversial topics. He repeatedly emphasized the importance and responsibility of scientists in directing public discourse on socially important topics in the context of civilization challenges or science policy. He emphasized the need for a rational approach to social discussion, based on facts. At the same time, he emphasized the important role of scientists in educating society about the real importance of scientific research.

He was also a prudent director, who listened carefully to his employees and stood behind them. He supported young, ambitious scientists in their development, regardless of the scientific discipline they represented, trying to provide them with the best possible working and development conditions. He believed in his employees and had confidence in them, which gave him extraordinary motivation to work. He was involved in initiatives he believed in. He did not expect respect for who he was before, but his attitude constantly earned the respect of his colleagues and he enjoyed great authority among the CeNT community.

Professor Piotr Węgleński left us on January 19, 2024 as an undisputed Authority with enormous culture, knowledge and class, perfectly recognized and respected in the academic community and widely in society, both in the country and around the world.

It is with great regret that we say goodbye to our wonderful Teacher, Mentor, Colleague and Friend.

Community of the Centre of New Technologies University of Warsaw

(photo from the archives of the University of Warsaw Promotion Office, photo of Professor Piotr Węgleński)