Herbert Friedmann, biochemistry scholar and mentor, 1927-2014

Herbert C. Friedmann, PhD’58, an authority on bacterial enzymes, the biosynthesis of vitamin B12 and the history of biology, and a role model for rigorous and effective teaching, died Monday, Jan. 13 at the University of Chicago Medicine from injuries sustained in a fall. He was 86 years old.

Friedmann, an associate professor of biochemistry and molecular biology, taught biochemistry to college and graduate students at UChicago for almost 50 years. He maintained an active research lab for the first half of that career then gradually shifted his energies from laboratory research to teaching and writing on the history of biology.

His better-known later publications include a book on the history of enzymology, a 65-page treatise on the career of Theodore Escherich, for whom the ubiquitous bacterium E. coli, was named, and a short paper listing his “Fifty-six laws of good teaching,” a quick reference containing sound advice for any instructor.

“He was a witty and inspiring teacher with a sense of history,” said Jose Quintans, professor of pathology at the University of Chicago and former dean and master of the Biological Sciences Collegiate Division. “His signature course, Biochemistry 200, formed the core of the premed and bio-major curriculum. Top students considered it rewarding; it propelled them through medical school. Those less committed found the class challenging, but never questioned Friedmann’s engaging methods of presentation or his fairness in grading.”

“All undergraduates wishing to go to medical school had to take Friedmann’s Introduction to Biochemistry course,” said Martin Horvath, PhD’94, a teaching assistant for the class and now an associate professor of biology at the University of Utah. “For each topic he would interject at least one analogy or story, drawing on a vast set of rich personal experiences. He could be quite irreverent. He literally would hop up and down many times during these classes. The students loved him. I now teach biochemistry and try, with varying degrees of success, to evoke the enthusiasm and passion that he brought to his teaching.”

Herbert Claus Friedmann was born June 19, 1927, in Mannheim, Germany, “nine years after the end of World War I,” he noted in a memoir, “and 12 years before the beginning of World War II.”

His mother, a musician, played the violin. His father, a physician, had hoped to become an ophthalmologist, but he had been drafted into the German army in 1914 and assigned to care for soldiers suffering from syphilis, a disease with prominent skin manifestations. So he became a dermatologist.

Family life changed radically for the Friedmanns when Herbert was 11 years old. On Nov. 10, 1938, the second day of Kristallnacht, representatives of the Nazi party arrested his father for being Jewish and took him to Dachau, the first of the German concentration camps. That same day, a group of men entered and smashed nearly everything in the family’s Mannheim apartment, including the violin and medical instruments.

At the time, Jews were permitted to emigrate overseas if they “voluntarily” gave up their property. A German professor, working in Bombay (now Mumbai), arranged for the family to move to India and helped Friedmann secure work caring for patients with skin diseases, including syphilis and leprosy. He was released from Dachau after ten days, thanks to his wife, who travelled to Dachau with proof of a visa to India. He left for India immediately. The family followed in early 1939.

They settled in Madras (now Chennai), in southern India. In 1940, after World War II began, the family was “interned,” because they were German citizens in British India. They were moved to Yercaud, a “hill station” southwest of Madras, but were allowed to live there with few restrictions.

Friedmann grew up and learned English and French in India. He completed high school in Yercaud in 1943 and earned his bachelor’s in chemistry at the University of Madras in 1947. After graduation, he worked in biochemistry labs at the University, studying enzymes, while completing his master of science degree.

In 1954, the Mumbai colleague who had enabled the family to move to India pulled more strings and arranged for Friedmann to enter a PhD program, with a scholarship, at the University of Chicago. Friedmann worked with professor Brigit Vennesland, SB’34, PhD’38. He completed his PhD in 1958, worked as a research associate at the University for one year, followed by a two-year fellowship at Johns Hopkins University. There he met Joan Bowerman, his future wife, a Hopkins student with a master’s degree in German. They married in 1961.

Friedmann returned to Chicago as a research associate (assistant professor) in physiology in 1960 and began his studies of vitamin B12 and its role in bacterial nucleotide synthesis. In 1964 he was named an assistant professor of biochemistry. He was later promoted to associate professor.

He was consistently “one of the department’s best citizens,” said Donald Steiner, MS’56, MD’56, a former chair of biochemistry and molecular biology. “He gave more lectures than anyone else. He introduced undergraduates to biochemistry in a way that made it special.” He also initiated and ran the faculty seminar series. 

In 1978, Friedmann was one of two UChicago faculty members awarded the Llewellyn John and Harriet Manchester Quantrell Award for Excellence in Undergraduate Teaching. Based on letters of nomination from students, the award is among the most treasured by faculty.

“He was unerringly kind and patient to his students, constantly reminding us of the heritage of the experimental sciences that we were studying, in which he had been a participant,” said Harvey Luksenburg, AB’73, MD’77. “For many of us, he was a lifelong friend, a raconteur, an authority on classical music, history and literature, and a gently ironic commentator on politics and academia.” 

Student assessments of Friedmann remained favorable for his entire career. He retired in 2009, at the age of 82, but his last batch of reviews was glowing. “Professor Friedmann is approachable and friendly and the single-best science professor I have had as an undergraduate,” one student wrote. Another added: “Not only does the University of Chicago need more men like Professor Friedmann, but so does biology.” Such reviews are consistent with Friedmann’s 56 laws of good teaching: especially numbers 8, “Never give a lecture unless your knowledge far exceeds the content of the lecture,” and 34, “Always take your students as seriously as they take you.”

He is survived by his wife, Joan; their daughter, Elisabeth Pryor, and her husband Patrick; and two grandchildren, Eric, U High’13, and Amalia, MSW’11. A memorial service on campus is being planned.