George Hess, biochemist, dies at 92

George Hess

George Paul Hess, professor emeritus of biochemistry in the Department of Molecular Biology and Genetics, died Sept. 9 at home in Ithaca.

Hess joined the Cornell faculty in 1955 and served for 60 years. Using fast-reaction techniques, he initially investigated proteins in solution then turned to membrane-bound proteins, particularly neurotransmitter receptors that facilitate communication between the cells of the nervous system.

Under his leadership, Hess’ group developed new techniques and chemical probes to study receptors in single cells on submillisecond time scales. The innovative approach included a laser-pulse photolysis method to characterize individual steps in receptor mechanisms. His group developed compounds (“caged” neurotransmitters) that are biologically inactive until photolyzed to release the active neurotransmitter very rapidly. Thus, the group illuminated how receptor mechanisms can be adversely affected by neurological diseases, and identified alleviatory compounds.

“George Hess was a pioneer in the study of a class of proteins called ion channels, gate-keepers that allow specific small molecules to enter cells,” said colleague Volker Vogt, Cornell professor of molecular biology and genetics. “His studies combined chemical and biological approaches to provide an unprecedented mechanistic understanding of this process, which is the basis of the action of nerves.”

Added Barbara Baird, senior associate dean in the College of Arts and Sciences and professor of chemistry and chemical biology: “George had a mind and a physical constitution that could not be ignored. Whether in scientific discussions or the great outdoors, a strenuous hike for others was an enjoyable walk in the woods for him. I and many others will miss his invigorating friendship.”

Hess was a member of the National Academy of Sciences and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and a fellow of the Biophysics Society, the American Association for the Advancement of Science, and the American Academy of Microbiology. He was a John S. Guggenheim fellow, a Fulbright scholar, an NIH special fellow, a Fogarty scholar and an Alexander von Humboldt awardee.

Hess was well-known for his mentoring of undergraduate, graduate and postdoctoral students, and twice received outstanding educator recognition by Merrill Presidential Scholars.

“George had such a tremendous impact in science, and in my own scientific journey,” said colleague Linda Nicholson, professor of molecular biology and genetics. “He was so generous in spirit, and would regularly drop by my office to say hello and to discuss science and life. 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.”

Hess served on the advisory board of the Molecular and Behavioral Neuroscience Center in Puerto Rico and the editorial advisory board of the journal Biochemistry. He was a visiting fellow and professor at many universities around the world, serving twice as a U.S. Department of State cultural exchange professor in Europe.

Hess received his bachelor’s degree, and then his doctoral degree in biochemistry in 1951, both from the University of California, Berkeley, followed by postdoctoral training in chemistry at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. At Berkeley with C.H. Li, he showed that the adrenocorticotropic hormone, thought to be a protein, is actually a small peptide adsorbed to a biologically inactive protein. At MIT in John Sheehan’s laboratory, he developed the dicyclohexylcarbodiimide method for the formation of peptide bonds.

“I greatly admired the scientific partnership between George and his wife, Susan,” said Eric Alani, professor and chair of the Department of Molecular Biology and Genetics. “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.”

Hess was born in Vienna, Austria, and came to the United States in 1938. 

He is survived by his wife of 35 years, Susan Coombs ’80; four sons by his second wife Betsy Williams, Peter ’79, Richard, Paul and David, and daughters-in-law Natalie Mahowald, Chris Colbath-Hess, Katherine Childs, and Andrea Kahn; and eight grandchildren.

Friends and colleagues are invited to a memorial service at 2 p.m. Saturday, Nov. 7, in the chapel of Annabel Taylor Hall. A reception will follow at p.m. in the adjoining Founders Lounge.

Media Contact

Melissa Osgood