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George Feher

1924 - 2017 Obituary Condolences
George Feher Obituary
George Feher May 29, 1924 - November 28, 2017 La Jolla George Feher, one of UCSD's founding faculty members, died last week at his home in La Jolla. Born in Bratislava, Czechoslovakia, in 1924, George escaped Nazi Europe at the age of 16 with eight other members of a leftist Zionist group; they journeyed to Palestine (present-day Israel, at the time a British Mandate) where they joined a kibbutz. Fueled by the need to further his education, which had been interrupted in 1939 by the expulsion of Jews from the Slovak schools, Feher left the kibbutz after a year and a half. He moved to Haifa, where he worked as an electronic technician at the Israeli Institute of Technology (the Technion), and perform several projects for the Jewish underground, the Haganah. (Among these, kept secret for 50 years, the tapping into and decoding of the private telephone line between the British High Commissioner in Jerusalem and the British Prime Minister at 10 Downing Street in London). Unable to study in Palestine (for he failed the portion of the entrance exam to the Technion that dealt with the Old Testament and the authorities maintained that "a Jewish engineer must know the Bible"), he left in 1946 to study in the United States. The University of California, at Berkeley, was unique in that it was willing to admit him without a high school diploma; there he received a BS and MS in engineering and in 1954, a PhD in physics. (Ten years after that he made yet another career switch, to biology - and founded the program in biophysics at UCSD.)From 1954 to 1960, Feher worked at the Bell Telephone Research Labs in New Jersey, probably the foremost research institution in solid state physics (a field now known as condensed matter) at the time in the USA. At Bell, he was intimately involved in the development of the three-level maser that rode in the first US satellite put in orbit in 1958. In that period, he also developed a technique (called ENDOR for Electron-nuclear double resonance) that still finds wide applications. But when he came to the University of La Jolla (as UCSD was called in the first years of its existence), he had an understanding with Roger Revelle: first he would set-up the experimental programs in the Physics department and train a young faculty member to carry on that line of work, but then he would go on to pursue new problems using the tools of physics in biology. The new biology beckoned. While in the East coast, as he considered Revelle's offer of a position in the new campus in La Jolla, Feher took a part-time position teaching in the physics department at Columbia University "to see if he liked academic life." At Columbia, he met a graduate student from Argentina, Elsa Rosenvasser. Suffice it to say that their passionate romance, of almost 60 years' duration, is the stuff legends are made ofIn the course off his career, Feher received many awards, prizes and honors. He was elected to the National Academy of Sciences in 1975. He received the American Physical Society Prize in 1960, the Oliver E. Buckley Solid State Physics Prize in 1976, the American Physical Society Biophysics Prize in 1982, the Rumford Prize from the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1992, the Zavoisky Award in 1996. In 1994, he was awarded a doctorate honoris causa by the University of Jerusalem and in 2007, at the Knesset in Jerusalem and received the Wolf Foundation Prize in Chemistry. At UCSD, Feher established a laboratory that engaged in developing physical techniques and theories to unravel the primary processes of photosynthesis. According to the Wolf Prize jury, "Feher's impressive work in research on photosynthesis rests on his extraordinarily vivid imagination and on the sustained discipline with which he forced himself to master the underlying biochemistry in a brilliant and systematic manner. His work is seminal for the construction of synthetic and semi-synthetic molecular energy converters, which may have profound implications in an energy-demanding world." But quite aside from prize-winning results, the laboratory excelled in promoting openness, honest and careful thinking, attention to detail (no sloppiness in mind or in deed!), nurturing of ideas; George Feher students and postdocs partook of an ethos, and took it with them on their future profesional life. In the last years of his life, Feher wrote his book, Thoughts on the Holocaust, in an attempt to come to grips with the question that haunted him throughout his entire life; How could it have happened? The writing was triggered by his 3-hour interview for the Shoah Foundation which finally got him to talk about the horrific events of WWII. Despite this dark backdrop, George lived life with zest. He had a lifelong love of swimming, skiing and of poker. He had a tremendous sense of humor. His story-telling was mesmerizing. Besides his wife Elsa, George Feher is survived by his two daughters, Shoshanah of Mission Hills, CA and Paola of Bozeman, MT; Shoshanah's husband, Geoff Sternlieb; Paola's partner, Joe Josephson; and three grandchildren: Avi, Sylvie and Joshie Sternlieb. Please sign the guest book online at legacy.com/obituaries/ lajollalight .
Published in La Jolla Light on Dec. 21, 2017
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