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Hochstrasser Dies At 82

University of Pennsylvania chemist built the foundations for today’s ultrafast science

by Celia Henry Arnaud
April 8, 2013 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 91, Issue 14

Credit: Courtesy of Robin M. Hochstrasser
This is a photo of Robin Hochstrasser.
Credit: Courtesy of Robin M. Hochstrasser

Robin M. Hochstrasser, 82, the Donner Professor of Physical Sciences at the University of Pennsylvania, died on Feb. 27.

“The world has lost a first-rate spectroscopist and physical chemist whose work laid the foundation for some of today’s leading advances in ultrafast science,” says Ahmed H. Zewail, the 1999 Chemistry Nobel Laureate and a professor of chemistry at California Institute of Technology, who was one of Hochstrasser’s graduate students.

Hochstrasser was “a true pioneer in modern physical chemistry and chemical physics,” says Michael D. Fayer, a chemistry professor at Stanford University. Early in Hochstrasser’s career, Fayer says, “physical chemistry was dominated by the study of small molecules in the gas phase. His early work motivated a major shift in the direction of physical chemistry as he pulled the community along with him into the study of liquids, solids, and biological systems.”

Hochstrasser is best known for his work on ultrafast spectroscopy and two-dimensional infrared spectroscopy. Much of his recent research focused on biological applications of spectroscopy in topics such as protein folding and amyloid structures.

Paul H. Axelsen, a professor in the departments of pharmacology, biochemistry and biophysics, and medicine at the University of Pennsylvania Perelman School of Medicine, collaborated with Hochstrasser for nearly 20 years. “It was magnificent to behold such a strong, creative, and agile intellect wrestle with subtle intricacies of amyloid fibril structure or the behavior of protein-embedded water molecules, even just days before his death,” Axelsen says.

A native of Scotland, Hochstrasser received a B.Sc. in applied chemistry in 1952 from Heriot-Watt University, in Edinburgh, and a Ph.D. in chemistry in 1955 from the University of Edinburgh.

In 1957, he joined the University of British Columbia as a chemistry instructor. He took leave in 1961 to study at the National Research Council of Canada in Ottawa, Ontario, and at Florida State University. In 1963, he joined the faculty at UPenn, which became his permanent scientific home.

Hochstrasser’s honors included the Ahmed Zewail Award in Ultrafast Science & Technology, the Peter Debye Award in Physical Chemistry, the E. Bright Wilson Award in Spectroscopy, the F. A. Cotton Medal, and the Benjamin Franklin Medal in Chemistry. He was a member of the National Academy of Sciences, the American Academy of Arts & Sciences, and the American Chemical Society, which he joined in 1972.

He is survived by his wife, Carol; daughter, Jennie; and grandson, Finnian Kasregis.

Obituary notices of no more than 300 words may be sent to Susan J. Ainsworth at and should include an educational and professional history.



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