September 4, 2019


SUBJECT:    Passing of Professor Emeritus Elvin John Harper

It is with regret that we share the sad news that Professor Emeritus of
Chemistry and Biochemistry Elvin “John” Harper passed away from
complications of heart disease July 16, 2019. He was 88 years old.

Harper was born Nov. 19, 1930, in New York City. He attended the Bronx
High School of Science and the City College of New York, graduating with
a Bachelor of Science degree in 1952. He continued his education at
Brooklyn College and obtained a doctorate from Albert Einstein College
of Medicine in 1966.

After postdoctoral research at the Weizmann Institute in Israel, Harper
joined the faculty at Harvard Medical School, becoming an associate
professor in the group headed by Professor Jerome Gross. In 1973, Harper
joined the faculty in what’s now the Department of Chemistry and
Biochemistry at UC San Diego, where he was a founding member of the
current Thurgood Marshall College, and he was instrumental in
implementing its early science curriculum. On campus, Harper became
involved in a wide range of departmental activities and taught in the
School of Medicine, as well as in the undergraduate curriculum.

Harper’s research was focused on the enzyme collagenase, which catalyzes
the hydrolysis of collagen fibers, an activity critical to the
remodeling of tissues during development as well as during disease. Much
of his work was begun while he was at Harvard, where he studied the
collagenase involved in the metamorphosis of tadpoles, a model system
for the remodeling of collagen during development. Harper was able to
isolate a precursor of collagenase, procollagenase, and demonstrate in a
seminal publication the conversion of procollagenase into collagenase—a
conversion that initiates the degradation of collagen during the
metamorphosis of tadpole to frog and all other remodelings of collagen.

At UC San Diego, Harper continued his studies of collagenase and its
activation while collaborating with other investigators examining the
regulation of collagen metabolism in development and disease. Initially
located in Urey Hall, Harper joined a large group of faculty in the
department when they moved in 1978 to the Chemistry Research Building.
The top floor of the building was occupied by biochemists, a group
widely known for their Thursday afternoon teas.

In 1994, Harper was among eight members of the Department of Chemistry
and Biochemistry who retired through the Voluntary Early Retirement
Incentive Program (VERIP III). He kept an office on campus until 2012,
maintaining his academic interests by reading Science and Chemical and
Engineering News until his death.

Harper is remembered as a pleasant, courteous, and disciplined
individual with an unusual sense of humor. He was able to calm tense
situations with a humorous remark followed by an impish smile. One of
his avid interests was owls, and pictures of them covered the walls of
his office. He also pursued interests in chess, jazz, and opera and
traveled widely, including a trip to the Galápagos Islands.

Harper is survived by Dr. Judith Harper, his wife of 43 years. They
worked together in his laboratory in the Chemistry Research Building
until he retired. Donations can be made in Elvin John Harper’s memory,
by making checks payable to UC San Diego Foundation for the Department
of Chemistry & Biochemistry; Fund #F-1209. Please mail checks to UC San
Diego Gift Processing, 9500 Gilman Drive, #0940, La Jolla, CA
92093-0940. Donations can also be made online at; type 1209 in the Explore More Giving
Options field.

Steven Boggs
Dean, Division of Physical Sciences

Vicki Grassian
Professor and Chair,
Department of Chemistry & Biochemistry