Memorial set for renowned UO scientist John Schellman

John Schellman
John Schellman

An important chapter in the UO’s history of scientific research closed recently with the death of retired chemistry and biochemistry professor John Schellman at the age of 90.

A memorial gathering for friends and colleagues will be held at 3 p.m. Saturday, Jan. 31, at Cascade Manor, 65 W. 30th Ave., in Eugene.

Schellman came to the UO in 1958 just as the university was trying to build up its strengths in the natural sciences. He was one of the early members of the groundbreaking Institute of Molecular Biology and helped bring about a renaissance in the university’s science program, playing an important role not only in research breakthroughs in the area of protein chemistry but also helping the UO get needed funding to build modern research facilities.

“John was a distinguished scientist, member of the National Academy of Sciences and a kind and generous colleague who set a fine example for others to attempt to emulate,” said Andy Marcus, head of the Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry.

Peter von Hippel, a professor of biophysical chemistry and molecular biology, was a longtime friend and colleague of Schellman’s and called him “truly one of the outstanding scientists who have ever worked at the University of Oregon.” His career at the UO spanned some 45 years.

Schellman came to the UO after doing postdoctoral work at the University of Utah, the Carlsberg Laboratory in Denmark and the University of Minnesota. He was brought on by Terrell Hill, who had been hired to help the UO elevate its science and research programs, which had lost vigor due to earlier legislative actions concentrating science education at what is now Oregon State University.

Schellman was one of the early hires in that revitalization effort and helped show other researchers that the university was a place that supported top-level science. Von Hippel was among those who came to the UO in part because of Schellman’s influence.

“He was really a world figure,” von Hippel recalled. “He was highly respected everywhere.”

Schellman studied large molecules such as proteins and developed new techniques in light spectroscopy to learn more about their structure and dynamics. He contributed to advances in the use of light-based microscopes and polarized light to help develop a better understanding of protein structures.

He also made major contributions to both the theory and the experiments that led to our modern understanding of the interactions and folding of these “molecules of life.”

Von Hippel remembers Schellman as a quiet man who shunned the spotlight but who had a ready sense of humor, including a love of puns. He was generous with his time and was the person many of his colleagues went to for advice when tackling particularly difficult research problems.

Some scientists, von Hippel said, are respected for their contributions but not necessarily for their personalities, while others are the sort people love to spend time with.

“John was the latter,” he said. “He was a joy to be around. He was just a person that you liked.”

He and his wife, Charlotte, who was also a scientist, traveled frequently for academic events and for pleasure. Both were avid supporters of the arts, and Schellman had a love of classical music and also played piano.

Schellman retired to emeritus status in 1990 but continued to do research well into the latter part of the decade. In addition to his election to the National Academy of Sciences, he was a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and the American Physical Society.

He received his undergraduate degree from Temple University in 1948 then went to Princeton University, where he earned a master’s degree in 1949 and a doctorate in 1951. He a member of Phi Beta Kappa, received a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1969 and was awarded honorary doctorates by Chalmers University in Sweden and the University of Padua in Italy.

—By Greg Bolt, Public Affairs Communications