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Columbia Mourns the Passing of Chemistry Professor Richard Bersohn

Richard Bersohn

Richard Bersohn, a Columbia University chemistry professor for 44 years, and the Higgins Professor of Natural Science since 1986, died on Tuesday, November 18, after a long illness.

A renowned physical chemist and member of the National Academy of Sciences, Bersohn's research focused on the photochemistry of molecules and the reaction of photochemically produced free radicals. His experiments were noteworthy for their elegant and powerful simplicity. Among his achievements was the first demonstration that photodissociating molecules produce fragments with a characteristic spatial pattern that reveals the molecular motions during dissociation. Bersohn also did pioneering research in biophysics and in molecular reaction kinetics. Although initially a gifted theoretical chemist, he became an experimentalist soon after coming to Columbia. He was a scientist of unusual breadth and depth.

Born in New York City on May 13, 1925, Bersohn grew up on the City's west side, just blocks away from the American Museum of Natural History and its planetarium. Here his passion for science developed. By 1943 he received a B.S. in chemistry from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and entered the U.S. Army for two years where he worked on the Manhattan Project. He received an M.A. (1947) in physics and Ph.D. (1949) from Harvard under the supervision of the Nobel Laureate J. van Vleck, a theoretical physicist. Bersohn taught at Cornell for eight years before joining Columbia in 1959. He received the 1985 Herbert P. Broida Prize in chemical physics from the American Physical Society. Bersohn was a member of the Committee on Atomic and Molecular Science of the National Research Council and a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.

He served as head of the Division of Chemical Physics of the American Physical Society in 1971, and as chairman of the Advisory Committee to the Chemistry Department of the Brookhaven National Laboratory from 1981 to 1984.

The chemistry department mourns his loss and will miss his wisdom, wit and grace.

The Bersohn family is deeply rooted in Columbia. His wife, Nehama, earned her M.A. from the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences (GSAS), 1970, and her Ph.D. from GSAS' Middle East Languages and Culture, 1976, where she now teaches as an adjunct assistant professor. His mother Jessie Bersohn (nee Schaff) received an M.A. in mathematics from GSAS, 1916; his brother, Malcolm, holds a Ph.D. from GSAS, 1960; and his brother-in-law, David Elkin, has a B.A. from Columbia College, 1937, and an M.D. from the Medical School, 1941. In addition, his son, David, has a J.D. from Columbia Law, 1977; his daughter, Rina, has a B.A. from Columbia College, 1998, and his son-in-law, Adam Spiewak, has a B.A. from Columbia College, 1999, and a J.D. from Columbia Law, 2002. Bersohn's daughter, Leora, is a Ph.D. candidate in GSAS' English department, and his grandson, Daniel, is a junior at Columbia College.

Bersohn is survived by his wife Nehama, four children and two grandchildren. Funeral services were held on November 19.

Published: Nov 26, 2003
Last modified: Nov 26, 2003

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