University of California San Diego (UCSD) Foundation

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  • 2012 −$50,000 Challenge grant to start the funding for an endowed chair to be named for Dr. George Feher at UCSD.   
  • 2009 −$125,000 grant for the second and final payment of the total an endowed chair to be named for Dr. Feher in the Experimental biophysics department at UCSD.
  • 2008 −$125,000 grant for half of the total for an endowed chair to be named for Dr. Feher in the Experimental biophyics department at UCSD.                       


SUBJECT: Passing of Founding Faculty Member and Founder of Biophysics atUC San Diego, George Fehe

It is with great sadness that we announce the passing of George Feher,one of UC San Diego’s founding faculty members, who died Nov. 28, 2017,in his home in La Jolla after a long illness. He was 93. Born inBratislava, Czechoslovakia, May 29, 1924, Feher escaped Nazi Europe atthe age of 16 with eight other members of a leftist Zionist group. Theyjourneyed to Palestine (present-day Israel; at the time a BritishMandate) where they joined a kibbutz. Fueled by the need to further hiseducation, which had been interrupted in 1939 by the expulsion of Jewsfrom the Slovak schools, Feher left the kibbutz after 18 months. Hemoved to Haifa, where he worked as an electronic technician at theIsraeli Institute of Technology (the Technion) and performed severalprojects for the Jewish underground, the Haganah. Among these was thetapping into and decoding of the private telephone line between theBritish High Commissioner in Jerusalem and the British Prime Minister at10 Downing Street in London. Unable to further his education inPalestine, Feher left in 1946 to study in the United States. TheUniversity of California at Berkeley admitted him without a high schooldiploma, and he went on to earn a Bachelor of Science degree, an MS inengineering, and a PhD in physics in 1954. From 1954 to 1960, Feherworked at the Bell Telephone Research Labs in New Jersey, one of theforemost research institutions at the time in the U.S. in “solid statephysics,” a field now known as “condensed matter.” At Bell, he wasintimately involved in the development of the three-level maser thatrode in the first U.S. satellite put in orbit in 1958. During thatperiod, Feher also developed a technique for electron-nuclear doubleresonance (ENDOR) that is still widely applied, including quantumcomputing, unheard of in the 1950s. When Feher first came to what wasthen called the “University of La Jolla,” he had an understanding withRoger Revelle that, initially, he would set up the experimental programsin the physics department and train a young faculty member to carry onhis work, and then he would go on to pursue new problems using the toolsof physics in biology. The new biology beckoned, and in 1964 Feherfounded the program in biophysics at UC San Diego. While living on theeast coast as he considered Revelle’s offer of a position at the newcampus in La Jolla, Feher took a part-time job teaching in the physicsdepartment at Columbia University to see if he liked academic life. Thatis where he met a graduate student from Argentina, Elsa Rosenvasser, whowas to become his wife and partner for nearly 60 years. Feher, in thecourse of his career, received many awards, prizes and honors. He waselected to the National Academy of Sciences in 1975. He received theAmerican Physical Society Prize in 1960, the Oliver E. Buckley SolidState Physics Prize in 1976, the American Physical Society BiophysicsPrize in 1982, the Bruker Prize from Oxford University and the RumfordPrize from the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1992, and theZavoisky Award in 1996. In 1994, he was awarded a doctorate honoriscausa by the University of Jerusalem, and in 2007, at the Knesset inJerusalem, he received the Wolf Foundation Prize in Chemistry. At UC SanDiego, Feher established a laboratory that developed physical techniquesand theories to unravel the primary processes of photosynthesis.According to the Wolf Prize jury, “Feher's impressive work in researchon photosynthesis rests on his extraordinarily vivid imagination and onthe sustained discipline with which he forced himself to master theunderlying biochemistry in a brilliant and systematic manner. His workis seminal for the construction of synthetic and semi-syntheticmolecular energy converters, which may have profound implications in anenergy-demanding world.” The laboratory excelled in promoting openness,honesty and careful thinking, as well as attention to detail and thenurturing of ideas. Feher’s students and postdoctoral scholars partookof an ethos that they forwarded into their professional lives. DavidKleinfeld, professor of physics at UC San Diego, holder of the GeorgeFeher Endowed Chair in Experimental Biophysics and who was mentored byFeher, said, “George was truly the experimenter's experimentalist. Heknew how to ask important questions, estimate the feasibility of makinga measurement and maintain focus to see a project through. He was awonderful mentor.”

In the last years of his life, Feher wrote his book, “Thoughts on theHolocaust,” in an attempt to come to grips with the question thathaunted him throughout his entire life: How could it have happened? Hewas motivated to write the book after a three-hour interview for theShoah Foundation, which finally enabled him to discuss the horrificevents of WWII. Despite this dark backdrop, Feher lived life with zest;he had a lifelong love of swimming, of skiing and of poker. He had atremendous sense of humor, and his story-telling was mesmerizing. Feheris survived by his wife, Elsa; his two daughters, Shoshanah FeherSternlieb of Mission Hills in San Diego, and Paola Feher of Bozeman, MT;Shoshanah’s husband, Geoff Sternlieb, and Paola’s partner, JoeJosephson; and three grandchildren: Avi, Sylvie and Joshie Sternlieb.Those wishing to honor Feher’s memory are asked by the family to make agift to the Dr. George Feher Experimental Biophysics Endowed Chair.Donations can be made online at; please search“Dr. George Feher Experimental Biophysics Endowed Chair.”

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