Franklin “Frank” Stahl was born in Boston. He received a B.A. from Harvard University in 1951. Stahl then went to the University of Rochester for graduate work.
While finishing up his Ph.D., Stahl attended a molecular biology course at Woods Hole. The course was being taught by James Watson and Francis Crick, and it was here that Stahl met Matthew Meselson. As they both tell it, during a break in the course, Meselson introduced himself to Stahl who was sitting under a big tree drinking and selling gin and tonics. At the time, Meselson was a graduate student at the California Institute of Technology; he was interested in exploring new methods of experimentation. Stahl had the experience and the math to help Meselson design these experiments. They hit it off right away and made plans for Stahl to do post-doctoral work at Caltech.
In 1957, Stahl and Meselson developed the technique of density gradient centrifugation and used it to prove that DNA was replicated in a semi-conservative way, as predicted by Watson and Crick in their 1953 paper. Meselson and Stahl’s paper appeared in 1958.
In 1959, Stahl accepted a position at the University of Oregon where he is still a distinguished Emeritus P rofessor of Molecular Biology. He maintains a research interest on the mechanisms of genetic recombination.
Stahl then conducted extensive research on bacteriophages, viruses that infect bacteria, and their genetic recombination. In 1964 he ascertained that the T4 bacteriophage had a circular genetic map and that its DNA was circularly permuted. He then turned his attention to recombination in the more complex λ bacteriophage, eventually locating a site (dubbed Chi) on its DNA sequence necessary to initiate recombination. The discovery, made in 1972, had implications for the use of bacteriophages in cloning, as well as for the general understanding of the recombination process. His later work elucidated the recombination process in yeast.
Stahl wrote The Mechanics of Inheritance (1964) and Genetic Recombination: Thinking About It in Phage and Fungi (1979). The recipient of numerous honours, he was awarded two Guggenheim Fellowships (1975 and 1985) and a MacArthur Fellowship (1985). He was also elected to the National Academy of Sciences (1976) and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences (1982).