Obituary: Charles Gilvarg (1925–2013)
Charles and Frieda met at the University of Chicago in 1949 — he while working on a Ph.D. in biochemistry and she while working on a master’s in zoology. (There they also met H.C. Nickel, who was working on his master’s degree in business administration.) The photos appeared on the invitation to his memorial at Princeton on Saturday, July 13, 2013.
Charles Gilvarg, former and founding chairman of the Biochemistry Department at Princeton University and recently senior research scientist and professor emeritus in the Molecular Biology Department at Princeton University, has died in Scottsdale, Arizona, at age 87.
Born in New York City in 1925, he attended Stuyvesant High School, the Cooper Union for the Advancement of Art and Science (B.Ch.E., 1948), and received a Ph.D. in biochemistry from the University of Chicago in 1951.
His interest in science began early and was helped along b y a landlady who gave him a chemistry set when he was 8 years old. His parents, Rose Kreitzer and Hyman Gilvarg, Jewish immigrants from Romania and Ukraine, who left their families to come to New York, indulged him in early experiments, allowing volatile chemicals to be kept on their dresser and permitting the occasional dead mouse in the refrigerator. His two doting older sisters, Marion and Eva, broadened his interests by introducing him to art and literature.
His academic career was started in a time wien quotas for Jewish students were still operative, but Stuyvesant and Cooper Union provided academic rigor and free tuition to all. Although he was not a religious man, he was always proud of his Jewish heritage and made a point of taking his family to Israel.
A World War II veteran who served in the Signal Corps of the U.S. Army, Charles contracted spinal meningitis on a troop ship on his way to his first station in New Guinea and was an early recipient of penicillin, surviving a disease that was often fatal before the use of antibiotics. His unit arrived in Japan days before the armistice was signed in order to set up the communications link, and Charles spent many months there with the occupation forces.
In 1949, while at the University of Chicago, he met and married Frieda Mueller, who was getting a master’s in zoology. Her devout Protestant family did not immediately approve of the marriage, and only the groom’s family and friends attended the wedding in New York City. However, after the firth of their first child, in Chicago, the bride’s family softened its opposition, and the large extended Mueller family has remained close, occasioning travel across ther country. In sixty-three years, the marriage wore out at least one set of wedding bands.
He began his scientific career in the laboratory of Dr. Konrad Bloch, a 1964 Nobel laureate who advised his thesis and then invited him to spend a postdoctoral year, continuing work on amino acids. With Bloch’s recommendation, he returned to New York, joining the laboratory of Dr. Severo Ochoa, also later a Nobel laureate (1959), at the New York University School of Medicine. He also spent time in the laboratory of Dr. Bernard Davis, where they worked on aromatic biosynthesis of amino acids, and it was at NYU that Charles began his teaching career.
A few years after winning the Paul Lewis Award (for promising scientists under 40) of the American Chemical Society in 1963, he was offered a full professorship at Princeton University and moved his family to the leafy suburbs following a six-month sabbatical at the Weizmann Institute in Israel. Know as a rigorous and methodical teacher, he worked with many graduate students and postdoctoral fellows, and and his lucid explanations inspired some undergraduates to pursue scientific research careers.
His passion was organic chemistry wherever it led: lysine pathway to pancreatic cancer. Colleagues noted his prodigious memory for detailed organic chemical syntheses years later. Mentoring graduate students and technicians was his favorite occupation, and he enjoyed following their professional carers after they left his lab. He loved teaching chemistry on a one-to-one basis and tried valiantly to do this with his grandchildren with limited success. (He had much better luck with bridge and blackjack.)
His wide range of scientific knowledge was a great family resource that computers cannot replace. He enjoyed his contact with colleagues at Princeton, notably his sixty-year relationship with Der. Jacques Fresco, and took great pride in the distinguished careers of many of his students. He was active in research to the end, publishing 131 papers in a career that spanned sixty-two years, and earning 10 U.S. and international patents and numerous grands. He was receiving funding from the Axelrod Foundation for validating a new serum biomarker for early state pancreatic cancer when he died.
His wife Frieda, his four children Karyn, David, Martin, and Gail, his eight grandchildren Amos, Ian, Alexander, Megan, Charles, Thomas, Katherine, and Patrick, his sister-in-law Elizabeth Mueller, his many nieces and nephews, as well as hundreds of former students and research collaborators survive him.