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Courtesy of the University

September 5, 2017

Cornell Microbiology Professor Dies at 64

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Professor Eugene Madsen M.S. ’81 Ph.D. ’85, microbiology, remembered as “an all-around amazing person” who lived with enthusiasm and passion, died at 64 on Aug. 9.

He was “a great professor and academic and research advisor,” said Dejah Powell ’18, who was one of Madsen’s former students and worked in his lab.

Madsen began his academic career at Cornell in 1979 as a graduate student and joined its faculty in 1989, becoming a full professor in 2009, according to the University.

“He was a leader in environmental microbiology,” Prof. John Helmann, chair of the Department of Microbiology, told The Sun. “He was very involved in the development of the environment and sustainability sciences major. He was also a very accomplished researcher in an active program and a textbook author.”

Madsen’s research focused on “documenting the ‘who,’ ‘what,’ ‘how,’ ‘where,’ ‘when,’ and ‘why’ of microbiological processes in water, soil, sediments and ground water,” according to his lab’s webpage.

Madsen was invited to give lectures around the world and wrote his own textbook, “Environmental Microbiology: From Genomes to Biogeochemistry,” which he used in his course, according to the University.

“He wasn’t interested in what people thought of him so much as he was in doing good science, being a good person,“ said Prof. Anthony Hay, microbiology, whose lab was right next to Madsen’s.

Those close to Madsen described him as an enthusiastic and caring person who will be missed at Cornell.

“It was great working with him,” Powell said. “Anyone who knows him or has taken his class can tell his energy and excitement for teaching [and] for science.”

After taking a class with Madsen in her freshman year, Powell worked in Madsen’s lab for about a year and half, and said she really appreciated his enthusiasm and mentorship.

“As an undergraduate student not knowing what I wanted to research, he would say, like, ‘Let’s go Dejah, let’s sit. Come in the office,’ and we would talk for almost an hour.”

The two would speak about Powell’s interests and “why it was that I was in the lab and what direction I wanted to go in,” she said, adding that he was “super supportive of anything I wanted to do.”

Powell also recounted when Madsen comforted her when she rushed into the lab distraught after President Donald Trump won the presidential election in November.

“It was this moment where seeing someone recognize I’m not okay and to have them make the initiative to talk about it, it made me feel a whole lot better by the end of lab,” she said.

Prof. Cliff Kraft, natural resources, knew Madsen as a close friend for at least 15 years from when they both swam at Teagle together.

“Gene was one of the kindest people I can ever imagine,” he said. “I never heard Gene say anything negative about anybody. He just was a very kind person — very friendly, very thoughtful.”

Madsen was known for bringing a trumpet to class to engage students.

“He was a very unique person with a great sense of humor,” Helmann said. “He liked to often start classes playing trumpet and engaging with students in that way.”

In addition, Kraft described Madsen as a very active, athletic person who was always riding his bike around campus.

“He looked 20 years younger than he was, and he acted that way too,” said Prof. Anthony Hay, microbiology.

According to Madsen’s obituary, he “was in tremendous physical shape and able to make difficult gymnastic routines look easy. One of his accomplishments in the months prior to his death was performing a giant on the high bar — a very impressive complete circle, fully extended, around the bar.”

Madsen posted a video of one of his gymnastic routines to Facebook on June 4, a bit more than two months before he died, with the caption, “kiddie routine on high bar — maybe the last hoorah.”

Paul Beckwith, head coach of the Women’s Gymnastics Team, said he was an ardent supporter of the squad.

“He loved the sport — he came by almost daily to watch practice,” he said. “He liked to work out and he was a trumpet player and he played the national anthem at all our home games for the last three years. He just was very involved on a personal level.”

“We’re very appreciative that his family chose [to] designate gifts in his memory to our intercollegiate gymnastics team,” said John Webster, director of Athletic Alumni Affairs and Development.

A memorial service will be held Oct. 15 at 2 p.m. in Stocking Hall Conference Center, according to the obituary.