Distinguished University Professor Richard W. Hanson, a world-renowned scientist deeply revered by his students and colleagues, died Friday after a long and courageous battle with cancer. He was 78. Dubbed by one scientific publication as the “maestro of metabolism,” he achieved remarkable breakthroughs in molecular biology and biochemistry, and at the same time inspired and nurtured legions in classrooms, laboratories, lecture halls and pretty much anywhere else someone sought support, insight and wise advice.
“In many ways, Richard reflected the very best of Case Western Reserve,” President Barbara R. Snyder said. “He brought such energy, enthusiasm and extraordinary intellectual curiosity to everything that he did, always seeking to advance individuals and essential discoveries. He will be missed by all who had the privilege to know him.”
Hanson came to Cleveland in 1978 after an impressive career at Temple University’s School of Medicine, where he won the Student American Medical Association Award for Excellence in Teaching and advised Shirley Tilghman, former president of Princeton University, as his first graduate student. It was at Temple that he began a lifelong fascination with pyruvate carboxylase and phosphoenolpyruvate carboxykinase (PEPCK-C) and authored the first of dozens of papers on the subject.
A professor of biochemistry and nutrition and chair of Case Western Reserve’s biochemistry department, Hanson quickly established himself as a compelling instructor with packed classes and overwhelmingly positive ratings. For him, lectures were a form of theater—indeed, he often quoted Shakespeare from the stage—and his task as an actor was to illustrate the inherent drama and appeal of metabolism and related subjects. His infectious energy and enthusiasm was just as evident in interactions with graduate students and young faculty.
“Richard set great examples over the years for scientific excellence, leadership, teaching and mentoring. All of those who were lucky enough to work with him learned immeasurably from him in each of those areas, but what stands out to me is the respect and kindness he showed to everyone,” said Tony Wynshaw-Boris, chair of the medical school’s Department of Genetics. “I have often asked myself when faced with a difficult situation, ‘How would Richard handle this?’ The answer to that question has served me well over the years. I am so grateful to have him as a mentor, role model and friend.”
Hanson also continued to explore PEPCK-C, pioneering understanding of this gene with regard to its regulation, its physiological role in tissues, and its effect on mouse models in different quantities. His research led to more than 240 publications in academic journals, six patents, and a role as founding scientist of Copernicus Therapeutics. His work carries significant potential for improving human life with gene therapy and also with deepening our understanding of genetic factors that contribute to disease.
Hanson’s peers recognized his achievements with such honors as the prestigious William C. Rose (1999) and the ASBMB/Merck (2006) awards from the American Society of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology; Meade Johnson Award (1971) and the Osborne/Mendel Award (1995) from the American Institute of Nutrition; the Maurice Saltzman Award (1991) from the Mt. Sinai Health Care Foundation; and the Lifetime Achievement in Diabetes Research Award (in 2008, with Dr. Satish C. Kalhan) from the Diabetes Association of Greater Cleveland’s Dietrich Diabetes Research Institute.
Hanson won election to the Institute of Medicine in 1987, and served as president of the American Society of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology in 1999-2000. He served on a large number of eminent advisory boards for federal, academic and private organizations, as well as the editorial boards of several of the most prominent academic journals in his field. He spent time as a visiting professor at several universities and also was named the 250th Anniversary Distinguished Teaching Professor at Princeton University in 2001-2002.
“Richard is the kind of scientist, teacher and human being that we all aspire to be,” said School of Medicine Dean Pamela B. Davis. “He combined incredible brilliance with incomparable compassion, unbridled joy in teaching with serious pursuit of scientific questions. We all benefited from every interaction, usually learning not only about the subject of our conversation, but profound lessons about life itself. We will miss him dearly.”
In 2007, Hanson’s work received unprecedented global attention from both the academic and mainstream media thanks to a cover article in The Journal of Biological Chemistry regarding an animal we came to know as “Mighty Mouse.” With the benefit of genetic engineering involving a form of PEPCK-C, his animals developed incredible speed and endurance—and became the envy of every overextended human around the world. He reveled in the opportunity to bring scientific concepts to the masses, even going so far as to post a cartoon version of the mouse on webpages and a video.
Even with all of his national and international engagements, Hanson always found time to provide exceptional service and mentoring on campus. Among his honors from Case Western Reserve are: the Student Committee on Medical Education Faculty Teaching Award for Preclinical Teaching; the National College Senior Honor Society Top Professor Award; membership in the AOA Medical Honor Society as voted upon by our medical students; the Gender Equity Award from the Women Faculty of the School of Medicine; and the John S. Diekhoff Award for graduate teaching and mentoring. He also received the Frank and Dorothy Humel Hovorka Prize, the single highest honor the university can bestow on an individual faculty member. Finally, in 2010 Richard was part of Case Western Reserve’s first class of Distinguished University Professors.
“Words cannot adequately express our debt to Richard for his many years of kind encouragement, collegial advice, scientific example and humane spirit,” said biochemistry department chair Michael A. Weiss. “Richard’s life and career remind us of the values that underlie the academic enterprise; his example highlights the university’s overarching commitment to the next generation and to the betterment of our community and society.”
More information will be provided in The Daily as it becomes available.