September 23, 2015

Biochemistry Prof. Emeritus George Hess Dies at 92

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Prof. Emeritus George Hess, biochemistry, died Sept. 9 at 92 at his Ithaca home.

Originally from Austria, Hess moved to the United States in 1938.  He received his bachelor’s degree and Ph.D. in biochemistry from the University of California, Berkeley.  He received his postdoctoral training in chemistry at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, according to the University.


Hess began working at Cornell in 1955, serving on Cornell’s faculty for 50 years.

Colleague Prof. Volker Vogt, molecular biology and genetics, described Hess in a University press release as “a pioneer in the study of a class of proteins called ion channels, gate-keepers that allow specific small molecules to enter cells.”

Hess originally studied proteins in solution, then began focusing on membrane-bound proteins. He also led a group that studied receptors in single-cells, showing how receptor mechanisms are disrupted by neurological diseases.  His group is responsible for the development of new techniques to study these receptors, according to the University.   

Prof. Linda Nicholson, molecular biology and genetics, said in the press release Hess had a “tremendous impact in science, and in [her] own scientific journey,.”

“He was so generous in spirit, and would regularly drop by my office to say hello and to discuss science and life,” Nicholson said. “His visits were often filled with stories of his own journey, from his boyhood in Austria and California, to his various adventures as he grew from a young scientist into a world-renowned member of the National Academy of Sciences.”

Merrill Presidential Scholars recognized Hess twice as an outstanding educator. He was also a John S. Guggenheim fellow, a Fulbright scholar, an NIH special fellow, a Fogarty scholar and an Alexander von Humboldt awardee.

Hess’s  legacy continues at Cornell and around the world.  He served on the advisory board of the Molecular and Behavioral Neuroscience Center in Puerto Rico and was a visiting fellow and professor at many universities around the world. In addition, he worked as a U.S. Department of State cultural exchange professor in Europe.

Colleague Prof. Eric Alani, chair of the Department of Molecular Biology and Genetics, said he “admired the scientific partnership between George and his wife.”

“This interaction, in addition to the beautiful science that it led to, provided us with a wonderful example of the importance of collaboration in all aspects of one’s life,” Alani said in the release.

Hess is survived by his wife of 35 years, Susan Coombs ’80; four sons, Peter ’79, Richard, Paul and David and eight grandchildren.