Geza Hrazdina, plant pigment pioneer, dies at 83

Geza Hrazdina, who advanced fundamental understanding about the compounds that give plants their color, flavor and protection against disease and pests, died June 2 in Geneva, New York. He was 83.

Hrazdina, a professor emeritus of food science, focused his research on understanding plant natural products – chemicals plants create to attract pollinators, protect themselves against disease or pests, aid reproduction and perform many other tasks. He is best known for his work on anthocyanins, natural products that give plants like grapes, apples and petunias their pigmentation, according to Gavin Sacks, professor of food science.

“It took a lot of chemical ingenuity at the time to identify these trace compounds,” Sacks said. “Geza went through some of the most painstaking chemical operations to isolate these compounds and identify their spectral properties, melting points and many other properties. He didn’t discover anthocyanins, but he helped discover the breadth and diversity and function of these and related compounds in the plant kingdom.”

Geza Hrazdina

Hrazdina’s research has been influential for horticulturalists and, ultimately, consumers, Sacks said. Using the information Hrazdina and other early anthocyanin researchers discovered, plant breeders have developed new varieties with unique coloring and enhanced nutrition.

“These anthocyanins have many positive health effects, and enhanced coloring is important for consumer interest in fruits and vegetables, too: We first eat with our eyes,” Sacks said. “There’s a number of new plant varieties of appealing color and good nutrition that have been introduced in the last decade or so, and Geza was one of those pioneers who helped the plant world get to that point.”

Hrazdina also did early studies on related plant metabolites, including tannins – the astringent, mouth-drying compounds found in foods and beverages including chocolate, tea, coffee and, especially, red wine. Later in his career, Hrazdina investigated natural causes of disease resistance and fruit ripening, with the goal of eliminating the need for chemical sprays.

He authored more than 80 peer-reviewed journal articles, several books and a dozen book chapters, and his work has been cited more than 5,200 times in other peer-reviewed research.

His expertise was recognized worldwide. He served the Phytochemical Society of North America in several capacities, including on its advisory and executive committees, and as president from 1982-83. In 1993 he served as program director for the National Science Foundation’s Division of Cell Biology, and he twice was awarded an Alexander Von Humboldt research fellowship, in 1973 and 1982.

At Cornell Hrazdina served as co-chair of the Cornell Genomics Initiative in the late 1990s and early 2000s. A grassroots movement spearheaded by life science researchers, the initiative worked to create dialogue between research scientists across campus and to recruit a new generation of scholars who could use then-cutting-edge technologies like DNA sequencing to address fundamental questions in the life sciences.

Hrazdina was born in Letenye, Hungary, on March 16, 1939. His family suffered persecution after the 1956 Russian invasion of Hungary, and he spent time in a prison camp in Yugoslavia before fleeing the country in 1958. He earned bachelor’s, master’s and doctoral degrees from the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich. Initially hired at Cornell as a postdoctoral research associate, Hrazdina joined the faculty in 1968 and remained with the university until his retirement in 2007.

Throughout his life, Hrazdina maintained ties with and concern for his country of origin. In 1979, he was awarded a National Academy of Sciences fellowship to work with the Institute of Organic Chemistry, Technical University, Budapest. And he served with the Cornell International Institute of Food and Agricultural Development Eastern European Program from 1991 until his retirement. In 2001, he was elected to the Hungarian Academy of Sciences, one of Hungary’s highest scientific honors.

Hrazdina is survived by his wife of 34 years, Minou Hemmat Hrazdina; his son, Geza K. Hrazdina; daughter-in-law Kate and granddaughter Katherina.

Krisy Gashler is a writer for the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences.

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