Harold Scheraga receives honorary degree from City College of New York

For the last seven decades, Harold Scheraga has been doing research at Cornell, with over 1,300 scientific papers to his name – five so far in 2018. So when his alma mater decided to present him with an honorary degree and he couldn’t get to New York City, the president of City College of New York (CCNY) and numerous CCNY faculty came to Ithaca instead. The ceremony was held June 6 in the Physical Sciences Building, followed by a luncheon in the Baker Atrium.

In his welcome remarks, Andrew Bass, Senior Associate Dean for Science and Math in the College of Arts & Sciences and professor of neurobiology & behavior, said “Harold Scheraga’s commitment to scholarship, to discovery, to innovation, and to Cornell University is nothing short of remarkable. Thank you for your unending dedication, and congratulations on this terrific honor.” He noted that Scheraga’s research has been continuously funded by the National Institute of Health for sixty years.

Vincent Boudreau Ph.D. ‘91, president of CCNY, presented Scheraga with the degree Doctor of Science honoris causa, calling it “a real joy to be able to do this.” He noted that Scheraga’s story as someone from “humble socioeconomic beginnings” who came to City College when it was free embodies CCNY’s commitment to promoting social mobility for its students. 

The citation presented to Scheraga by CCNY calls him a “true pioneer... Over the course of more than six decades, you’ve played a major role in elucidating the physical principles underlying the behavior of proteins. Your work laid the foundations for understanding the forces responsible for protein structure and stability, the prediction of the native structure of proteins, and the folding of proteins into three dimensional objects, as well as for current efforts in precision medicine to treat human diseases by specifically targeting damaged proteins...

“In Judeo-Aramaic, your name ‘Scheraga’ means ‘lamp’ or ‘light.’ And you have spent your life shining a bright light on one of the fundamental building blocks of life, the protein molecule. You have also mentored generations of young scientists who have refined your discoveries and made their own. A scholar’s scholar and a sturdy son of City College, you fundamentally changed the way the world understands proteins, and as you swore at your commencement in 1941, you have thus left the world greater, better and more beautiful.”

After receiving the degree, Scheraga thanked CCNY and offered appreciation for those who made a special trip to Ithaca to personally present him the degree. “I thank you all for making this a memorable day for me,” he said, offering special thanks that his wife could be present on the occasion of their 75th wedding anniversary.

Many of Scheraga’s former students attended the ceremony, including Gaetano Montelione ’80, PhD ’86, the Jerome and Lorraine Aresty Chair and Professor II in the Department of Molecular Biology and Biochemistry at Rutgers University. After receiving his PhD with Scheraga, Montelione has continued to collaborate with him on papers. He described Scheraga as “extremely dedicated,” adding, “he is an exemplar of what it means to love science.” 

Mike Green ’59, now a professor in the Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry at CCNY, was an advisee of Scheraga’s. “He had a lot to do with directing me to graduate school; he was an important person in my life,” said Green. “He’s a person whose advice is worth listening to.”

Scheraga received his B.S. from City College of New York (CCNY) in 1941 and his Ph.D. from Duke University in 1946. He joined the faculty at Cornell as an instructor in 1947 and became a full professor in 1958, and was named the Todd Professor in 1965. He served as chair of the chemistry department from 1960-1967. He has received many awards for his work and is a fellow of the American Chemical Society, the National Academy of Sciences, and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. 

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 Vincent Boudreau Ph.D. ‘91, president of CCNY, putting the hood on Harold Scheraga for the degree Doctor of Science honoris causa,