Sad News: Helen Van Vunakis

Jan. 15, 2019

Dear Colleagues,

I write to share the sad news of the passing on December 27, 2018 of Helen Van Vunakis, Professor Emerita of Biochemistry, at the age of 94.  Born in New York City she was the beloved wife of Brandeis Biochemistry Professor Emeritus Lawrence (Laurie) Levine who predeceased her in 2009. 

Helen Van Vunakis graduated in chemistry from Hunter College in 1942 and then completed her Ph.D. in Biochemistry at Columbia University in 1951.  Her dissertation was entitled “Free Amino Groups of Serum Albumins”. From Columbia she went directly to Johns Hopkins to do postdoctoral studies for three years in the Department of Biochemistry at the School of Hygiene.  She then spent four years as a senior research scientist in the N.Y. State Department of Health, and one year as a lecturer at Albany Medical College.  She and her husband Laurie Levine arrived at Brandeis in 1958 when she became an assistant professor of Biochemistry. She was promoted to associate professor five years later and became a full professor in 1973.  She retired from Brandeis in 2000. 

Helen Van Vunakis and her husband Laurie Levine were key figures in the establishment of the Biochemistry department at Brandeis in the late 1950s. As discussed by Abram Sachar in his book A Host at Last, the decision to establish a biochemistry department at Brandeis less than ten years after the university’s founding was an ambitious (if not audacious) move.  But since biochemistry was such a young field at the time it was thought that Brandeis would not be at such a disadvantage “in seeking a respected place in so new a field.” 

Helen and her husband were nationally recognized leaders in immunochemistry and immunology.  With steady funding from NIH she published over 123 research works with a particular focus on toxicological aspects of nicotine metabolism. Her sense of humor and pursuit of data can be seen in correspondence found in the Brandeis University archives with Dr. Sydney Brenner of Cambridge University (a joint winner of the 2002 Nobel Prize for Physiology and Medicine and arguably one of the 20th Century’s greatest biologists).  In a short note asking for verification of results of an experiment Dr. Brenner had done irradiating phage in the presence of methylene blue she wrote, “I’ve been told you do not like to write letters (and I can sympathize, since I too do not excel in the promptness or length of my replies).  Therefore I’ve taken the liberty of asking the pertinent questions on the enclosed sheet, in as painless a form possible. We can then quote your findings correctly with your official blessings.”

Helen was a very valued member of the Brandeis community over many decades, and she will be greatly missed.

Sincerely,

Lisa M. Lynch, Provost