Harry H. Wasserman

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1920 - 2013
Professor Harry Wasserman, a prize-winning chemist, member of the National Academy of Sciences, acclaimed teacher, and accomplished watercolorist, died at 93 in Lexington, Massachusetts on Dec. 29, 2013.

Harry grew up in and around Boston in a household often struggling to pay the rent. On weekends, he and his brothers would earn a few dollars sifting sand on Revere Beach for lost coins. Earning high marks at Cambridge High & Latin, Harry was awarded a Cambridge scholarship to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He started there in 1937 at age 16 and earned a B.S. in chemistry. While in college, Wasserman considered a career as an artist, studying with Boston painter and sculptor John Wilson.

After MIT, Harry began graduate studies at Harvard under the mentorship of the organic chemist R. B. Woodward, a future Nobel laureate. Harry interrupted his graduate studies in 1943 to serve in the 503rd Army Air Force in Africa and the Middle East. Rising to the rank of captain, he trained soldiers across the region to detect and protect themselves against chemical gas attacks.

Returning to Woodward's lab after the war, Harry met Elga Steinherz, a fellow chemist whom he married in 1947. Completing his Ph.D. research, he joined the Yale University faculty in 1948. There, he and his research group developed innovative methods for synthesizing antibiotics and other natural products. His many significant discoveries and accomplishments led to his election to both the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and the National Academy of Sciences.

In the classroom, Prof. Wasserman taught organic chemistry for more than four decades, gaining admiration for making an often-dreaded course clear and enjoyable. Among his awards and accolades were Yale's Devane Medal for excellence in teaching, a Yale College prize for Distinguished Undergraduate Teaching, and the Arthur C. Cope Scholar Award.

Dr. Wasserman's students and colleagues remember him as a warm and witty friend and mentor, fascinated by the beauty of structures, natural and manmade. He was upbeat, down-to-earth and game for adventure, whether beachcombing for driftwood treasure with the kids and grandkids on Cape Cod, or exploring museums and marketplaces with Elga. He savored good stories, a firm handshake, Benny Goodman, Humphrey Bogart, and the Marx Brothers.

While traveling widely for his science, he always took his brushes and sketchbooks. He would often delight family and friends with letters or postcards illustrated with watercolors of people, ports and landscapes. His paintings of campus architecture graced the cover of the Yale summer course catalog for fifteen years. Jazz was Harry's other lifelong passion. A self-taught clarinetist, he played regularly with a number of jazz combos, including a quartet of Yale chemists performing as "The Gloom Exterminators."

In honor of Professor Wasserman's distinguished career, Yale University has established the Wasserman Prize for Excellence in the Teaching of Chemistry.

Professor Wasserman is survived by his wife Elga; his children Daniel, Diana, and Steven; seven grandchildren; one great-granddaughter, and his brother, Herbert.
Published on NYTimes.com from Jan. 3 to Jan. 4, 2014
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