January 17, 2018


SUBJECT:    Passing of Founding Faculty Member and Founder of Biophysics at UC San Diego, George Feher

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 in Bratislava, Czechoslovakia, May 29, 1924, Feher escaped Nazi Europe at the age of 16 with eight other members of a leftist Zionist group. They journeyed to Palestine (present-day Israel; at the time a British Mandate) where they joined a kibbutz. Fueled by the need to further his education, which had been interrupted in 1939 by the expulsion of Jews from the Slovak schools, Feher left the kibbutz after 18 months. He moved to Haifa, where he worked as an electronic technician at the Israeli Institute of Technology (the Technion) and performed several projects for the Jewish underground, the Haganah. Among these was the tapping into and decoding of the private telephone line between the British High Commissioner in Jerusalem and the British Prime Minister at 10 Downing Street in London. Unable to further his education in Palestine, Feher left in 1946 to study in the United States. The University of California at Berkeley admitted him without a high school diploma, and he went on to earn a Bachelor of Science degree, an MS in engineering, and a PhD in physics in 1954. From 1954 to 1960, Feher worked at the Bell Telephone Research Labs in New Jersey, one of the foremost research institutions at the time in the U.S. in “solid state physics,” a field now known as “condensed matter.” At Bell, he was intimately involved in the development of the three-level maser that rode in the first U.S. satellite put in orbit in 1958. During that period, Feher also developed a technique for electron-nuclear double resonance (ENDOR) that is still widely applied, including quantum computing, unheard of in the 1950s. When Feher first came to what was then called the “University of La Jolla,” he had an understanding with Roger Revelle that, initially, he would set up the experimental programs in the physics department and train a young faculty member to carry on his work, and then he would go on to pursue new problems using the tools of physics in biology. The new biology beckoned, and in 1964 Feher founded the program in biophysics at UC San Diego. While living on the east coast as he considered Revelle’s offer of a position at the new campus in La Jolla, Feher took a part-time job teaching in the physics department at Columbia University to see if he liked academic life. That is where he met a graduate student from Argentina, Elsa Rosenvasser, who was to become his wife and partner for nearly 60 years. Feher, in the course of his career, received many awards, prizes and honors. He was elected to the National Academy of Sciences in 1975. He received the American Physical Society Prize in 1960, the Oliver E. Buckley Solid State Physics Prize in 1976, the American Physical Society Biophysics Prize in 1982, the Bruker Prize from Oxford University and the Rumford Prize from the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1992, and the Zavoisky Award in 1996. In 1994, he was awarded a doctorate honoris causa by the University of Jerusalem, and in 2007, at the Knesset in Jerusalem, he received the Wolf Foundation Prize in Chemistry. At UC San Diego, Feher established a laboratory that developed physical techniques and theories to unravel the primary processes of photosynthesis. According to the Wolf Prize jury, “Feher's impressive work in research on photosynthesis rests on his extraordinarily vivid imagination and on the sustained discipline with which he forced himself to master the underlying biochemistry in a brilliant and systematic manner. His work is seminal for the construction of synthetic and semi-synthetic molecular energy converters, which may have profound implications in an energy-demanding world.” The laboratory excelled in promoting openness, honesty and careful thinking, as well as attention to detail and the nurturing of ideas. Feher’s students and postdoctoral scholars partook of an ethos that they forwarded into their professional lives. David Kleinfeld, professor of physics at UC San Diego, holder of the George Feher Endowed Chair in Experimental Biophysics and who was mentored by Feher, said, “George was truly the experimenter's experimentalist. He knew how to ask important questions, estimate the feasibility of making a measurement and maintain focus to see a project through. He was a wonderful mentor.”

In the last years of his life, Feher wrote his book, “Thoughts on the Holocaust,” in an attempt to come to grips with the question that haunted him throughout his entire life: How could it have happened? He was motivated to write the book after a three-hour interview for the Shoah Foundation, which finally enabled him to discuss the horrific events 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 a tremendous sense of humor, and his story-telling was mesmerizing. Feher is survived by his wife, Elsa; his two daughters, Shoshanah Feher Sternlieb of Mission Hills in San Diego, and Paola Feher of Bozeman, MT; Shoshanah’s husband, Geoff Sternlieb, and Paola’s partner, Joe Josephson; and three grandchildren: Avi, Sylvie and Joshie Sternlieb. Those wishing to honor Feher’s memory are asked by the family to make a gift to the Dr. George Feher Experimental Biophysics Endowed Chair. Donations can be made online at; please search “Dr. George Feher Experimental Biophysics Endowed Chair.”

Steven Boggs
Dean, Division of Physical Sciences

Benjamin Grinstein
Professor and Chair,
Department of Physics