Maurice J. Bessman, a beloved professor of biochemistry and a researcher at the Johns Hopkins University who began his career there in 1958 and was still working at his death, died of pneumonia Nov. 12 at his Guilford residence. He was 93.
“Maurice worked in the area of bacteria and enzymes and I worked in chicken embryos, so our projects didn’t really overlap that much, but I did borrow a lot of things from his lab,” said James M. “Hawkeye” Pierce, a University of Georgia biochemist. “We all learned many things from him, and he was a great inspiration. He could be all business, but he cared about the people around him.”
Myron F. Goodman, a professor of biological sciences and chemistry at the University of Southern California had studied at Hopkins with Professor Bessman, who he calls his “most influential mentor.”
“I always called him Moishe,” Professor Goodman said. “He was an absolute genuine human being and an incredible detective.”
Maurice Jules Bessman, son of Edward Bessman, a pharmacist, and his wife, Sara Greenberg Bessman, a homemaker, was born and raised in Newark, New Jersey, where he graduated in 1946 as valedictorian from Weequahic High School.
Professor Bessman earned a bachelor’s degree in 1949 from Harvard University and obtained a master’s degree in 1952 and his Ph.D. in biochemistry in 1956, both from Tufts University.
After completing a postdoctorate fellowship at Washington University in St. Louis, he joined the biology department and the McCollum-Pratt Institute at Hopkins in 1958 as an assistant professor and eight years later was named professor.
“He passionately pursued his life’s work as a gifted biochemist to his last day, specializing in Nudix hydrolase and its impact on biochemical enzymology,” his son, Dr. Edward S. Bessman, chairman emeritus of the department of emergency medicine at the Johns Hopkins Bayview Medical Center, wrote in a biographical profile of his father.
“He authored or co-authored over 100 publications in his field and will always be remembered for his never-ending academic prowess and mentorship both professionally and personally to anyone his life touched, and for his irreverent, unapologetic sense of humor.”
Said Professor Goodman: “He found the sequence for Nudix hydrolase and worked out all of them and was still doing it until the very end.”
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Professor Bessman answered to a number of nicknames, including “Moishe,” “Boss,” “MJB,” “Mo,” “Huck” and “Peaches,” his son said.
It was stepping off an elevator onto the wrong floor in the Mergenthaler Hall of Biology building at Homewood that first brought Professor Goodman into Professor Bessman’s world and forever change his life.
“It was a Friday afternoon and all I wanted to do was get out of the biology building, and I had no idea where I was going,” Professor Goodman recalled. “I saw this door and tapped on it three times and then opened and what did I see? Here’s this little guy swinging from a steam pipe dressed in a white lab coat over a lab bench, that would eventually become my lab bench, with students standing around drinking American beer. He said, ‘I’m Maurice Bessman, who are you and have a beer.’ I ran into him because of dumb luck.”
Professor Goodman had earned his Ph.D. in electrical engineering and had accepted a job in 1969 at Bell Laboratories in Murray Hill, New Jersey, that paid $30,000.
“I dropped by his lab to say goodbye and he said, ‘Why are you leaving?’ I told Moishe that they were paying me $30,000, and he said, ‘Why don’t you do a postdoc in biology with me and I’ll pay you $6,500.’ I thought about it and even though it was one-fifth what Bell Labs was going to pay me, I didn’t want to do quantum equations for the rest of my life. So I was with him for five years and never did anything with my Ph.D. in electrical engineering.”
Professor Goodman then went home to speak to his wife about the change in his career plans. “Marion’s advice was, ‘You only live once, so why not try it?’” he said.
Professor Goodman worked in DNA replication in Professor Bessman’s lab and in 1973 joined the faculty at USC.
“And this all came about because of Moishe,” Professor Goodman said.
After giving up teaching in 2008, Professor Bessman focused his work on research, which he avidly conducted in his laboratory on the Homewood campus.
He and his wife of 68 years, the former Zita Goes, a Hopkins lab technician, enjoyed spending summers at a second home at Eastham on Cape Cod. He liked clamming, fishing, canoeing and traveling the world, and “tinkering with anything that could be fixed, including watches and clocks, which he collected,” his son said.
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Professor Bessman was a die-hard Hopkins lacrosse fan and “forever Blue Jay,” his son said.
“I spent a lot of time with Maurice and his family and we’d go to lacrosse games, and before the game, there was always a party in his lab,” Professor Pierce said. “I kept up with him and recently had written to him in an email about the University of Georgia and the University of Kentucky football.”
T.C. Berryhill has been a close friend for the past seven years.
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“There was no better gentleman in the world than Peaches. He was a gentleman’s gentleman. He was always a joy to be around him, his son Ed and daughter Debbie,” Mr. Berryhill said. “We had a special connection and I always called him Peaches.”
The two men were on different religious and political spectrums, but they did not let that interfere with their friendship.
“We didn’t agree on anything when it came to religion and politics. I’m a Republican and he’s a Democrat, but we never had a cross word,” Mr. Berryhill said. “We’d have fierce debates, but he respected my opinion and I respected his. We could accept each other’s viewpoint.”
Mr. Berryhill also credited Professor Bessman with being a great storyteller and jokester.
“He told stories about the 1930s, 1940s, 1950s and up to the current time,” he said. “He always had a joke and it was hard to get anything past him.”
Services were private, and plans for a celebration-of-life-gathering are incomplete.
In addition to his wife and son of Millersville, Professor Bessman is survived by two daughters, Debra Funk of Manchester, New Hampshire, and Cindee Bessman of Santa Monica, California; a sister, Marcelle Bessman of Jacksonville, Florida; nine grandchildren; and six great-grandchildren. Another daughter, Sheri Gagnon, died in 2009.