Founding member of Pitt's Biology Department to be honored in Harrisburg, Pa., ceremony

May 04, 2006

The year was 1949. The structure of penicillin was determined; the lysosome, a cell structure that breaks down proteins, discovered; and the "strong force," which holds protons and neutrons together in the nucleus of an atom, first described.

Amid these firsts in the fields of biology and physics, Max A. Lauffer became the chair of the newly created Department of Biophysics at the University of Pittsburgh (now known as the Department of Biological Sciences in the School of Arts and Sciences).

On May 6, Lauffer, of Middletown, Pa., will be recognized by the department at an event in Harrisburg, Pa., as a Distinguished Founding Member of the Department of Biological Sciences. At the ceremony, which takes place at 12:30 p.m. at the Harrisburg Wyndham Garden Hotel, School of Arts and Sciences Dean N. John Cooper will present Lauffer with an album of dozens of commendation letters from friends, colleagues, and admirers, including ones from Pa. Governor Edward G. Rendell and Pitt Chancellor Mark A. Nordenberg.

In addition, the department will announce the establishment of the Tousimis-Lauffer Distinguished Annual Lecture in Biological Sciences through a gift from Anastasios J. Tousimis, president and CEO of Tousimis Research Corporation, Inc., of Rockville, Md. Tousimis, who was one of Lauffer's students, earned the B.S. and M.S. degrees in biophysics at Pitt in 1950 and 1952, respectively, and the Ph.D. degree from George Washington University.

"The unparalleled knowledge and skill you brought to your classroom has provided invaluable insight over the years to a countless number of students," wrote Rendell in his letter to Lauffer. "It is with a remarkable caliber of character, an exceptional talent for leadership, and a passion for public service that you continually surpass the call of duty and make a positive impact on your community and our entire commonwealth."

"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," Nordenberg wrote in his letter. "Had you not chosen to come to the University, we would not have the standing we enjoy today in this innovative field."

During his career, Lauffer was internationally known for his research on the structure and biological activity of viruses. He earned the Ph.D. degree in biochemistry at the University of Minnesota in 1937. After working at the Rockefeller Institute for Medical Research at Princeton University, he joined Pitt in 1944 as part of an interdisciplinary group of distinguished professors who were developing new programs in the study of viruses.

Lauffer became the first chair of the Department of Biophysics when the department was founded in 1949 and dean of the Division of Natural Sciences in 1956. In 1963, he left his administrative post to return to Pitt's biophysics department as Andrew W. Mellon Professor.

Lauffer 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 the Biophysical Journal, the official publication of the American Biophysical Society, of which he was once president; coedited the journal Advances in Virus Research; and was a member of the editorial board of Archives of Biochemistry and Biophysics. Lauffer also was visiting lecturer at several distinguished universities, including the University of Bern in Switzerland, the Max Planck Institute of Tuebingen, Germany, and the Marine Biological Laboratory at Woods Hole, Mass.

Lauffer's many awards and honors include the Eli Lilly and Company Research Award in Biochemistry, the Pittsburgh Award of the American Chemical Society, and the University of Minnesota Outstanding Achievement Award.

When Lauffer retired from the University in 1984, Pitt hosted a daylong symposium at which eminent colleagues reported on advances in the field Lauffer had helped create. One of the luminaries in attendance was Jonas Salk, Lauffer's former colleague and discoverer of the Salk polio vaccine.

Today, Pitt's Department of Biological Sciences continues to flourish under the leadership of chair Graham Hatfull, a respected teacher and mentor and a Howard Hughes Medical Institute "Million Dollar Professor," who recently received a $500,000 renewal grant for his outreach work to local high school students.

University of Pittsburgh

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