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Robert H. Wasserman, discoverer of calcium-binding protein, dies at age 92

Robert H. Wasserman

Robert H. Wasserman ’49, Ph.D. ’53, professor emeritus at the Cornell University College of Veterinary Medicine (CVM), died May 23 at age 92. Wasserman, who made foundational discoveries in the mechanisms of mineral ion transport, was the first professor at a veterinary college – and the only CVM faculty member – elected to the National Academy of Sciences.

Born in 1926 in Schenectady, New York, Wasserman attended Cornell for Reserve Officer Training Corps training. After serving in World War II, he returned to Cornell to earn his bachelor’s in microbiology from the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences in 1949. He received a master’s degree at Michigan State University in 1951 and his Ph.D. from Cornell in nutritional microbiology in 1953.

Wasserman went on to work as a researcher at the Atomic Energy Program, University of Tennessee, Oak Ridge, and became a senior scientist of the medical division at the Oak Ridge Institute of Nuclear Studies.

In 1957, he joined the faculty of the veterinary college, where he became the James Law Professor of Physiology in 1989.

At the veterinary college, Wasserman focused on the function of vitamin D on intestinal absorption of calcium and phosphorus. His discoveries included the identification and characterization of calcium-binding protein, known today as calbindin. In 1980, he was inducted into the National Academy of Sciences, where he chaired the Committee on the Scientific Basis of Meat and Poultry Inspection and was a member of the Food and Nutrition Board.

Wasserman served on the editorial boards of many scientific journals, including Proceedings of the Society for Experimental Biology and Medicine,The Cornell Veterinarian, Calcified Tissue International and the Journal of Nutrition.His awards include the Mead Johnson Lectureship at Iowa State University, the Lichtwitz Prize of the Institut National de la Sante et de la Researche Medicale in Paris, the MERIT status award of the National Institutes of Health, the William F. Neuman Research Award from the American Society of Bone and Mineral Research, and the Career Recognition Award from Vitamin D Workshop. He was elected a fellow of the American Institute of Nutrition.

Curtis Fullmer, a scientist who worked with Wasserman at the college for 30 years, recalls his mentor’s quiet thoughtfulness and unending interest in learning. “He never gave up. He would teach courses in a variety of subjects so he could stay abreast in those fields,” Fullmer said. “He was one of the best people I ever knew. You don’t continue working with someone for 30 years if they’re not remarkable.”

Dr. Francis Kallfelz, the James Law Professor Emeritus of Medicine, Nutrition, worked in Wasserman’s lab as a veterinary student and as a Ph.D. candidate. “He was a good boss, patient in his directives, forgiving of my errors and encouraging of my interest,” Kallfelz said. “He never failed to credit his students with their research contributions by citing them, as primary or co-authors, on publications and presenting them at meetings. He was a brilliant, generous, supportive and enabling mentor, and had a modest and gentle nature – personality traits that are very rare in scientists that have reached his level.”

Lauren Cahoon Roberts is assistant director of communications for the College of Veterinary Medicine.

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Lindsey Hadlock