David A. Usher in 1984.

October 31, 2017

Chemistry Professor, Evolution Expert Who Serenaded Students, Dies at 80

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David A. Usher, a former Cornell chemistry professor who studied the origin of life and enthusiastically sang for students in his lectures, died on Oct. 6 at his home in Dryden. He was 80 years old.

Usher performed as a tenor lead in 13 Gilbert and Sullivan shows that were put on by the Cornell Savoyards, a Cornell theater group, and often serenaded his students with songs like Nessun Dorma and Bright College Days at the close of his lectures.

“I’m sorry if you find this a little lugubrious,” he told chemistry students after a thermochemistry lecture, before launching into Tom Lehrer’s song about the atomic bomb called “We’ll All Go Together When We Go.”

Usher joined the Cornell faculty in 1965, and taught organic chemistry and graduate-level courses in enzyme mechanisms, nucleotide chemistry and chemical aspects of biological processes until his retirement in 2016. He served on advisory committees for NASA and the Space Science Board of the National Academy of Sciences and co-chaired a task force to set goals for future space science research, according to NASA.gov.

After receiving tenure at Cornell, Usher combined his knowledge of chemistry, biology and astronomy to focus on the origin of life, a decision that did not sit well with his Cornell colleagues, he said in an interview.

“There were a lot of charlatans in the field, people who wanted to get their names in The New York Times,” he said in an interview with Prof. Bruce Ganem, chemistry. “But there were also a number of good practitioners. You often learned who was trustworthy and who was not.”

Teaching CHEM 1150: The Language of Chemistry, which satisfies the CALS physical science requirement for a chemistry course, was a “disappointment,” since students expected to pass the class without doing the work, Usher said in the interview. He preferred to teach standard organic chemistry to science students.

“I probably spent more time preparing lectures for that than I have for any other course, and yet there was a resistance to doing any work from the students,” he added.

Usher researched antisense technology, models of prebiotic formation of peptide bonds using oligonucleotide carriers and templates, and possible chemical evolution on Saturn’s moon Titan.

Usher correctly predicted that the linkage between nucleotides seen in natural biological RNA would be stabilized against hydrolysis in a double helix, while a non-natural linked RNA would be destabilized, The Cornell Chronicle reported. These experiments demonstrated the selective advantage for the linkage used by biological organisms, as well as the catalysis by RNA in the increased rate of hydrolysis of linked RNA when bound to a complementary strand of RNA.

Usher also focused on the chemistry of the nucleic acid and researched new methods to create segments and analogues of ribonucleic acids, Roald Hoffmann, Usher’s colleague and the Frank H.T. Rhodes Professor of Humane Letters, told The Cornell Chronicle.


Courtesy of Cornell Chemistry

“Usher’s work featured a close, perceptive analysis of the mechanism of the reactions by which new chemical bonds were formed at phosphorus, and the development of new reagents, cleverly using acidic and basic sites, and protecting parts of the molecule while other parts reacted,” Hoffmann said.

In addition to teaching and performing in operettas, Usher served as the faculty advisor to the Cornell women’s tennis team.

“It is impossible to mention David Usher’s life at Cornell without praising his love for music,” Hoffmann said. “He was a constant star in the classic Cornell Savoyards productions, and frequently entertained his classes with a song; his students remember these many years after.”

“You can do chemistry as a profession, and do music as an additional vocation,” Usher said in an interview.

Born in England Nov. 1, 1936, Usher moved with his family to New Zealand in 1948. Usher earned his bachelor of science degree in 1958 and Master’s degree in 1960 from Victoria University of Wellington, New Zealand, followed by a Ph.D. from Cambridge University in 1963. He also did postdoctoral research at Harvard University before joining the Department of Chemistry at Cornell.