May 14, 2019

Renowned Purdue University scientist Michael Rossmann dies

Kuhn Rossmann Michael Rossmann (right), Purdue University’s Hanley Distinguished Professor of Biological Sciences, and Richard Kuhn, director of the Purdue Institute for Inflammation, Immunology and Infectious Diseases, stand with the cryo-electron microscope used to determine the structure of the Zika virus. (Purdue University photo/Mark Simons) Download image

WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind.  – Michael G. Rossmann, a renowned scientist who gained worldwide attention in 1985 for discovering the structure of the common cold virus using X-ray crystallography, and later the structures for insect-carrying disease, died Tuesday (May 14) in West Lafayette, Indiana. He was 88.

Born in Frankfurt, Germany, Rossmann immigrated to England in 1939 as World War II ignited. In 1964, he joined the Purdue University faculty. He stayed more than 50 years, becoming the Hanley Distinguished Professor of Biological Sciences. He was a member of the National Academy of Sciences and the Royal Society of London.

“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.”

President Mitch Daniels, who notified the campus community of Rossmann’s passing, said, “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.”

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. 

Media Contact: Jim Bush, 765-494-2077, 

Source: Richard Kuhn, 765-494-4407,

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