Francisco Ayala
“When you can do good things, you should do them,” says Francisco Ayala, often called the “Renaissance man of evolutionary biology.” “This is a way of showing my gratitude to this university, which has been so good to me.” Steve Zylius / University Communications

Fifty years ago, ordained Dominican priest and budding geneticist Francisco Ayala arrived in New York from a “backward” Spain caught in dictator Francisco Franco’s grip. “It was heaven,” he says of the open sky at the end of each street between the soaring Manhattan spires. “A city and country of light.”

Now the eminent biologist is giving back to the university and country where he has researched evolution, religion, malaria and dozens of other topics. Ayala will donate $10 million to UC Irvine’s School of Biological Sciences, the largest gift ever by a professor here.

It will be funded with proceeds from another of his great loves: the Central California land he bought decades ago and turned into vineyards supplying grapes to the state’s major winemakers.

“When you can do good things, you should do them,” Ayala says. “This is a way of showing my gratitude to this university, which has been so good to me, where I have been able to do my research and teach wonderful students.… In a larger context, it’s a way of expressing my gratitude to this country. I came to the United States as a student, with no intention to stay, and yet here I am.”

The University Professor and Donald Bren Professor of Biological Sciences has been called the “Renaissance man of evolutionary biology” by The New York Times. A pinot noir and opera lover, onetime horse breeder and voracious reader, he first purchased 400 acres in the 1980s that a real estate agent had described as “a vineyard designed in Hollywood, it was so beautiful.”

Ayala and his family were immediately smitten by the verdant fields and trees nestled along a tributary of the Sacramento River. They took the plunge with a large mortgage, and he quickly realized that “the previous owners, from the Bay Area, had obviously done everything wrong” when it came to grapes.

With scientific zeal, Ayala began researching soil composition, sun exposure and other aspects of each corner of the land. A UC Davis professor at the time, he was assisted by that campus’s viticulture and enology specialists and got to know Robert Mondavi and other prominent vintners. In time, Ayala proved some of the Golden State’s wine experts wrong, planting grape varieties thought to be impossible to grow on his land.

The business began making money. He and relatives used the proceeds to buy more land, eventually acquiring 2,000 productive acres.

“Most UCI professors can’t afford a $10 million gift on their salaries, believe me,” says biological sciences dean Al Bennett, who has often sampled the fruits of Ayala’s vineyards. “I’ve had enough zinfandel to know that his is very good.”

Ayala is delighted that Bennett, a friend since his arrival on campus nearly 25 years ago, will be the first beneficiary. An initial $2 million will establish a dean’s chair in the name of Ayala and his wife, Hana, and fund unrestricted biology projects.

“It’s just incredible. I feel very blessed,” says Bennett.

The donation, which also will endow four new research chairs, comes at a welcome time for UCI, which, like the rest of the university system, is grappling with large budget cuts.

Last year, Ayala dedicated the proceeds of the $1.5 million Templeton Prize – awarded for his contributions to the evolution-creationism debate – to fund the work of UCI graduate students in biological sciences. Bennett cites that as the reason the school had a record number of top-notch applicants for its graduate programs this year and was able to enroll the cream of the crop.

“Words fail to express our gratitude to Professor Ayala for his generosity over the years. To add a gift of this magnitude to his already remarkable legacy is much more than we could have imagined,” says Chancellor Michael Drake. “This gift provides help right when we need it, right where we need it, targeted strategically to produce the greatest impact for our campus.”

Ayala says the university’s excellence, rather than fiscal need, prompted the donation. “The purpose is to recruit the best possible people,” he says. “UCI is a very young university, but it is very good, and we are getting better and better. Ours is one of the finest departments of ecology and evolution in the world.”

A member of the prestigious National Academy of Sciences, Ayala – whose research on parasitic protozoa could lead to cures for malaria and other diseases – has written more than 1,000 articles and 40 books. His recent Am I a Monkey? explores major evolutionary themes, including one he’s passionate about: how science and religion can coexist.

Ayala’s office is decorated with dozens of photos and awards, among them the National Medal of Science – bestowed by President George W. Bush – and recognition from President Bill Clinton for his service as a science adviser. Stuffed Amazon parrots, mementos of his work, perch on the desk and bookshelves.

Ayala, 77, is known for enjoying the best, be it five-star dining or a bottle of fine red wine made from his own grapes.

That zest shows in all he does. At a recent memorial for longtime friend Walter Fitch, Ayala showed a slide of his late colleague’s groundbreaking genetic diagrams. Instead of the usual black-and-white illustration of branches pointing downward, Ayala’s was rendered in bright colors and aimed skyward.

“I like my evolution in Technicolor,” he quipped.