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Obituary

John Lawrence Oncley
LSA Minutes

John Lawrence Oncley
1910-2004

Lawrence Oncley, Professor Emeritus of Chemistry and Biological Chemistry, died July 14, 2004. He was born on February 14, 1910, in Wheaton, Illinois. He remained active long after his formal retirement, publishing his last paper, “Dielectric Behavior and Atomic Structure of Serum Albumin” in Biophysical Chemistry in 2003.

He graduated from Southwestern College in Winfield, KS and earned his Ph.D. in chemistry at the University of Wisconsin in 1932. Following graduation, he moved to Boston where he studied the physical properties of plasma proteins, first at MIT and then at Harvard in 1936. He was appointed to the faculty of the Harvard Medical School in 1939. During World War II he worked on the development of methods for separating blood into its various components, and played a key role in the development of methods to purify gamma globulins from blood, work that has saved tens of thousands of individuals from infections.

His work on gamma globulins was the start of modern immunology. His work in the 1940's and 1950's defined high density and low density lipoproteins (HDL and LDL), so-called good and bad cholesterol. For this work he was, in 1947, elected as the youngest member of the National Academy of Sciences.

In 1958 he organized a 4 week conference at the University of Colorado in Boulder on Biophysics; ultimately this conference resulted in the publication of Biophysical Science: A Study Program, a guide to the teaching of the new science of Biophysics. This volume is widely considered to be the foundational document of the discipline of Biophysics. In 1962 he was elected president of the newly formed Biophysical Society and served from 1964-1967 as editor of The Biophysical Journal.

Professor Oncley came to the University of Michigan in 1962 as a Professor of Chemistry and Biological Chemistry and the founding director of a new interdepartmental Biophysics Research Division. He stepped down as Director of the Biophysics Research Division in 1976 and became Emeritus in 1980, although he continued to be active as an advisor and mentor to younger colleagues and students. The J. Lawrence Oncley Lecture at University of Michigan was established in 1982 in honor of his central role in establishing the discipline of biophysics.

Professor Oncley is survived by daughters Louise August of Darneston, Maryland, and Nancy Thyng of Harwich, Massachusetts, stepchildren Cora Lee Carlson of Chatham, Massachusetts, and John Giles of Princeton, New Jersey, a brother Paul of Oberlin, Ohio, and their families.

James E. Penner-Hahn, Biophysics Research Division
Robert L. Kuczkowski, Department of Chemistry