After serving as a medic in World War II for the Belgian Army, being captured by the Germans, and escaping, de Duve became a cytologist (cell biologist) and biochemist, and discovered lysosomes (in 1949) and peroxisomes (in 1967), both cell organelles — a specialized subunit within a cell. So what? This: it was the key to figuring out the biology of dozens of genetic diseases, such as Tay-Sachs, a mutation that leads to deterioration of nerves, which strikes children at about six months, and generally leads to death by age 4. “We are sick because our cells are sick,” de Duve said. In 1974, he shared the Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine with two other cell biologists. In its citation, the Nobel Prize committee said that by their accomplishments, the three “have been largely responsible for the creation of modern Cell Biology.” de Duve enjoyed the recognition, but said the effort was more about beating genetic diseases. “It’s now time to give mankind some practical benefit,” he said.
Dr. De Duve has been in declining health, with heart problems and cancer. After falling in his home, he realized the end was near, and chose to die by euthanasia, which has been legal in Belgium since 2002. “He wanted to make the decision while he was still able to do it and not be a burden,” said colleague Dr. Gunter Blobel. He wrote letters to friends, and waited until his four children could be by his side. “It would be an exaggeration to say I’m not afraid of death,” he admitted, “but I’m not afraid of what comes after, because I’m not a believer.” He died in his home on May 4. “He left us serenely and refused to take anti-anxiety pills before the final injection,” said his daughter Francoise. “He left with a smile and a good-bye.” He was 95.