Fotis Constantine Kafatos was born on 16 April 1940 in Heraklion, Crete, GR. He completed his primary and secondary education there (Lyceum “Korais”). In 1959, he went to study zoology at Cornell University (Ithaca, NY, US) on a scholarship from Anne Gruner Schlumberger. He graduated with an AB (High Honors) one year early in 1961, having worked with Thomas Eisner, a pioneer of chemical ecology.
In 1961, Kafatos went to Harvard University (Cambridge, MA, US) and obtained an MA in 1962 and a PhD in 1965. His doctoral thesis was entitled “The escape of moths from the cocoon: biochemical, physiological, morphological, and developmental studies” and was advised by Dr. Carroll Milton Williams. Kafatos stayed on at Harvard as an Instructor of Biology (1965), Assistant Professor of Biology (1965-1969) and then Professor of Biology (1969-1994). During his tenure at Harvard, he divided his time with Greece, holding part-time faculty positions at the University of Athens (1972-1982) and the University of Crete (1982-1993). He also founded and headed the Institute of Molecular Biology and Biotechnology, Research Centre of Crete (1982-1993).
During his time in the United States, Kafatos was among the first to apply molecular biology methods to the study of animal development. In particular, he contributed to the development of the complementary DNA (cDNA) synthesis, cloning and sequencing, and the dot-blot method for detecting, analyzing, and identifying proteins.
In 1993, Kafatos became the third Director General of the European Molecular Biology Laboratory (EMBL), succeeding Lennart Philipson in the post. Under his stewardship, the Monterotondo Outstation (now known as EMBL Rome), focusing on mouse biology, was opened (1999) on the Adriano Buzzati-Traverso Campus of the Consiglio Nazionale delle Ricerche (CNR).
During his directorship, Kafatos continued to carry out research. He studied, in particular, malaria and its major vector, Anopheles gambiae. This work led to the sequencing of the A. gambiae genome in 2002 and opened new avenues of study regarding the Plasmodium (malaria parasite) and its interactions with its host.
In 2005, after his tenure at EMBL ended, Kafatos moved to Imperial College, London, GB, where he held the Chair of Insect Immunogenomics. In December 2005, Kafatos was elected the first chairman of the European Research Council (ERC), which was launched in 2007. In this role, Kafatos was able to support excellent, investigator-initiated fundamental European research.
In 2007, he also became an Adjunct Professor of Immunology and Infectious Diseases at the Harvard School of Public Health.
Kafatos died on 2017-11-18 in Crete.