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September 13, 2012

Obituary: Max A. Lauffer

lauffer obitAndrew W. Mellon Professor emeritus Max A. Lauffer, founding chair of Pitt’s Department of Biophysics (now biological sciences) died Aug. 8, 2012, at his home near Harrisburg, just a few weeks before his 98th birthday.

As part of a 2006 ceremony honoring Lauffer, Chancellor Mark A. Nordenberg wrote: “As founder and head of the Department of Biophysics, you put in motion the events that enabled the University’s programs in biological science to rise to national prominence. Had you not come to the University, we would not have the standing we enjoy today in this innovative field.”

Lauffer earned his BS and MS in biochemistry from Penn State in 1933 and 1934 respectively, then completed his PhD in biochemistry in 1937 at the University of Minnesota.

After graduation, Lauffer worked under Nobel laureate Wendell Stanley at the Rockefeller Institute for Medical Research at Princeton. There he published the physical characteristics of the tobacco mosaic virus before the electron microscope confirmed his findings later. This was one of the first pictures of a virus ever created, laying the groundwork for the prevention and cure of infections from viruses. While at Princeton, he also worked on the influenza vaccine program supported by the U.S. Army. He studied biophysical properties of the influenza virus, which helped pave the way for the production of flu vaccines.

In 1944 he joined the Pitt faculty as part of an interdisciplinary group of professors developing new programs in the study of viruses. Lauffer focused on plant viruses, continuing his work on the tobacco mosaic virus. Among his colleagues was Jonas Salk, who focused his work on the polio virus.

Lauffer became the first chair of the biophysics department when it was founded in 1949, holding that position until 1956. Chancellor Edward Litchfield then reorganized the arts and sciences into three divisions, naming Lauffer the first dean of the Division of Natural Sciences, where he served until returning to the biophysics department in 1963.

Lauffer was skilled at balancing his many responsibilities. Former Faculty of Arts and Sciences Dean Jerome Rosenberg, who later appointed Lauffer chair of the merged  Department of Biophysics and Microbiology, said: “One of the amazing things about Max as dean is how he would compartmentalize his days. He was in the dean’s office in the mornings and returned to do his research in the department in the afternoons.”

Lauffer was internationally known for his research on the structure and biological activity of viruses. His main research interests while at Pitt were the hydration of viruses and proteins, and the relationship between the physical or chemical structure and the biological properties of biologically active proteins.

His awards and honors included the Eli Lilly and Company Research Award in Biochemistry, the Pittsburgh Award from the Pittsburgh section of the American Chemical Society and the University of Minnesota Outstanding Achievement Award.

The Tousimis-Lauffer Distinguished Annual Lecture in Biological Sciences was established in his honor in 2006 by his former student, Anastasios J. Tousimis.

Lauffer was a fellow of the New York Academy of Sciences and a member of the American Chemical Society, the Federation of American Scientists, the Biophysical Society, the American Society of Biological Chemists and the Society for Experimental Biology and Medicine.

He served as a consultant to the Joint Research and Development Board and the U.S. Army Biological Warfare Laboratories, and as a member of several National Research Council committees.

He edited Biophysical Journal, the official publication of the American Biophysical Society, which he served as president, and co-edited the journal Advances in Virus Research.

The University honored Lauffer at his retirement in 1984 by hosting a day-long symposium at which colleagues reported on the most recent advances in the field he had helped to create. Lauffer’s publication in retirement was “evidence of continuing activities in probing some of the fundamental natures of natural virus formation,” said Rosenberg.

In addition to his University work and research, Lauffer was very active in the Presbyterian church, both locally and nationally, Rosenberg said.

Lauffer is survived by his wife, Erika Erskine Lauffer; his children Edward, Susan, Max and John; several grandchildren and great-grandchildren.

The family suggests memorial contributions be made to Pitt’s Department of Biological Sciences or the Presbyterian Congregation of Middletown, North Union and Water streets, Middletown PA 17057.

A memorial service at the church is set for 3 p.m. Oct. 7. In addition, Lauffer will be memorialized at the next Tousimis-Lauffer Distinguished Annual Lecture in Biological Sciences. A date for the lecture has not been set.

Filed under: Feature,Volume 45 Issue 2

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