Dr. Max A. Lauffer

Dr. Max A. Lauffer was a professor, administrator, researcher and pipe smoker. He was known for discovering a virus (a tobacco related virus no less) before it could be confirmed under the microscope and he was highly influential in the discovery of the cure for Polio when he hired Jonas Salk to work on the vaccine at Pittsburg University. Sounds like we need a few more pipe smokers working on the COVID-19 virus don't you think?

As a Fellow and Associate at the Rockefeller Institute for Medical Research in Princeton, NJ, 1937-1944, Lauffer published the physical characteristics of a simple virus called the Tobacco Mosaic Virus (TMV) before the electron microscope confirmed his findings at a later date. Max’s work was important because this was one of the first pictures of a virus that was ever created, thus forwarding the prevention and cure of infections from viruses. While in Princeton, Max worked in Nobel Prize winner Dr. Wendell Stanley’s influenza vaccine program supported by the US Army. He studied biophysical properties of the influenza virus, which helped pave the way for the production of flu vaccines.

Max worked at the University of Pittsburgh as administrator, researcher and teacher from 1944-1986. During that time he founded and chaired the Department of Biophysics, was Dean of the Division of Natural Sciences, established a virus research program involving biophysical studies on the flu virus but especially on TMV. Max played a large role in bringing Jonas Salk to Pitt to work on the polio vaccine. Work in his later years involved studying the self-assembly of TMV. This turned out to be an entropy-driven process, which led him to study those processes further. Max said, “I believe that my work on entropy-driven processes in biology is the most important work of my career because they are involved in many of the processes that involve motion -- muscular movement or movement within cells. “

As a revered teacher, Max invited his graduate students to a weekly brown bag lunch in his office to discuss their dissertations. What he didn’t know at the time was that the students met the night before to critique each other before being grilled by their austere Professor. When confessing this, years later, during the establishment of the Tousimis-Lauffer Distinguished Annual Lecture in Biological Sciences, 2006, his students admitted that those lunches helped them to bond with each other and guide them to meaningful careers.

His honors include the Eli Lilly and Co. Award in Biochemistry from the American Chemical Society, 1945; outstanding Achievement Award, University of Minnesota, 1964; honorary member of Phi Beta Kappa, 1964; and the Samuel and Carolyn Williams Mission and Peacemaking Award along with his wife Erika at the Market Square Presbyterian Church, Harrisburg, PA, 2003.

Max was both scientist and churchman. His faith led him to serve the Presbyterian Church (USA) on local, regional, national and international levels, e.g. elder of the Presbyterian Congregation of Middletown, moderator of the Presbytery of Carlisle, 1992, member and chairman of the Council on Church and Society, 1963-1971, and delegate to the World Council of Churches’ Church and Society Conference in Geneva, Switzerland, 1966. He served on the boards of Pittsburgh Theological Seminary and The College of Wooster. Active in the community as well, he was a life long member of the World Federalist Association (now Citizens for Global Solutions) and was President of the Rotary Club of Middletown, PA.

Whether in connection with his scientific work or for pleasure, Max loved to travel. He taught at The Marine Biological Laboratory in Woods Hole, MA. Max was a visiting professor at the University of Bern in Switzerland, 1952, and the Max Planck Institute for Virus Research, Tubingen, Germany, 1965-1966. He served as a consultant at the University of the Philippines in the fall of 1967.

During the 1950s Max helped found the Biophysical Society. He served as member of the first National Advisory General Medical Sciences Council of the National Institutes of Health, and consultant to the Surgeon General of the US, 1963-1967.

Cited by Governor Edward G. Rendell for “remarkable caliber of character, exceptional talent for leadership, and passion for public service,” Max has always valued his Pennsylvania Dutch roots, retaining that of the country boy in his world travels and world-changing research and teaching. He loved to read history, tinker with machines, fish and play bridge with friends, play on the floor with children, and heartily laugh at jokes (often his own). Max’s sister Eleanor Geissenhainer, who died in 2003, remarked Max was a two-time winner in marriage referring to his first wife Dorothy Easton who died in 1963, and to his wife of 48 years, Erika Erskine Lauffer. He cherished time with his four children: son Edward William Lauffer and wife Louise of Mechanicsburg, PA; daughter Susan Keiper Lauffer of Arlington, VA; son Max Erskine Lauffer and wife Heike of Dusseldorf, Germany; and son John Erskine Lauffer of Harrisburg, PA. He was proud Grandfather and Great-grandfather of Lauren, Jon Allen, Samuel, Jonathan David, Rebeckah, Hannah, Cedric and Cecilia. He enjoyed his Easton and Erskine nieces and nephews as well as his many Keiper and Swiss cousins.

More on Norman Dr. Max Lauffer:

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Keeping the smoking lamp lit since 1989