Renowned Purdue University scientist Michael Rossmann dies at 88

Michael Rossmann Jan. 7, 2010 Courtesy of Purdue Biological Sciences

Purdue scientist Michael Rossmann, known for his 1985 discovery of the structure of the common cold virus using X-ray crystallography, and later the structures for insect-carrying disease, died Tuesday.

Posted: May 14, 2019 4:40 PM
Updated: May 14, 2019 4:55 PM

WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. (WLFI/Purdue University) - Purdue scientist Michael Rossmann, known for his 1985 discovery of the structure of the common cold virus using X-ray crystallography, and later the structures for insect-carrying disease, died Tuesday. Rossmann died in West Lafayette at the age of 88, according to a news release from Purdue. 

Rossmann's discovery gained worldwide attention. He was born in Frankfurt, Germany and immigrated to England in 1939. He joined the Purdue faculty in 1964 and served the university for more than 50 years. He became the Hanley Distinguished Professor in Biological Sciences and was named a member of the National Academy of Sciences and the Royal Society of London. 


Michael Rossmann (right), and Richard Kuhn stand with the cryo-electron microscope used to determine the structure of the Zika virus. (Purdue University photo/Mark Simons)

Purdue President Mitch Daniels notified the campus community Tuesday. 

"As I confirm the sad news of the passing of one of Purdue’s most legendary and distinguished scientists, Michael G. Rossmann, I know I speak for all of Purdue when I say few in our history have accomplished the significant scientific breakthroughs that Michael reached during his decades of dedication to the field of structural biology. Still vital, still curious, still in his lab at age 88, his was a life as rich in personal example as it was in scientific achievement.”

“Dr. Rossmann was a giant in the field of structural biology,” said Richard Kuhn, Purdue’s Trent and Judith Anderson Distinguished Professor in Science, with whom Rossmann often collaborated. “His work has made a real impact across the globe, and the world is safer from infectious viruses because of his dedicated work. Few people can say they contributed as much to humanity, and I will miss him very personally.”

Rossmann teamed with Kuhn for two of his biggest discoveries. In 2002, the two worked with their research group to determine the structure of the dengue virus. That opened the possibility of developing new vaccines and antiviral agents to fight a host of insect-borne diseases.

Rossmann and colleagues again made international headlines in 2016 when they became the first to determine the structure of the Zika virus. At the time, the mosquito-borne virus had been declared an epidemic and scientists were frantically trying to stop its spread. Two years later, they created the most accurate picture of Zika to date, and with it, the potential for antiviral compounds and vaccines.

Rossmann’s accolades in science were numerous. Among the more notable, he was named a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1978 and a member in 1984. He was awarded the Louisa Gross Horwitz Prize in 1990, and received the Gregori Aminoff Prize, awarded by the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences, in 1994. He received the Purdue Medal of Honor in 1994 and was a member of the National Academy of Sciences and served as a presidential appointee to the National Science Board from 2000-06.

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