Published November 5, 2018
As 2017 came to a close, Murray Ettinger, SUNY Distinguished Teaching Professor of Biochemistry, drew the curtain on a 48-year career at the Jacobs School of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences, ending his tenure as one of the school’s most respected and memorable teachers.
The reference to his exiting a stage is apt, as Ettinger, 80, was most at home in Butler Auditorium — his stage — where his animated teaching style, thick mane of gray hair and Philadelphia accent were a mainstay.
“If Murray lectured on proteins or DNA, he brought in simple materials — for example, coiled telephone wire — and built structures in front of the students. They got a kick out of,” says Daniel J. Kosman, SUNY Distinguished Professor of Biochemistry. “Murray also had a style of speaking that his students knew and I’m sure will always remember: If he thought something was important, he would repeat it three times. He was a legend in his own time.”
Mark R. O’Brian, professor and chair of the Department of Biochemistry, agrees that Ettinger’s playful enthusiasm is legendary. “Murray would attach colorful names to biological proteins to help students think about and remember them. Some of his phrases became a kind of folklore around the department, like ‘collagen superstar’ or ‘hemoglobin the magnificent.’”
Ettinger, whose shirt pocket would often be stuffed with index cards to scribble notes on, says he tried whatever he thought would work to open his students’ minds to the wonders of science. “I am a performer and a clown at times,” he readily acknowledges.
Ettinger and his wife, Pepy, never expected to stay long in Buffalo when they arrived here in the fall of 1969 after having moved every couple of years prior to that. Nor did they expect to raise two children in Buffalo.
“I enjoyed every minute of it,” Ettinger says of his time at UB. “I appreciate to this day that I was given free rein to do within reason whatever I wanted to in teaching and research. It allowed me to do my best in both areas.”
A native of Philadelphia, Ettinger earned his PhD in pharmacology at Drexel University College of Medicine. More interested in chemical mechanism than classic pharmacology, he discovered his true calling when he heard a speaker talk about enzyme kinetics and protein mechanisms. These became primary areas of interest when he served postdoctoral fellowships at Brookhaven National Laboratory and Brandeis University.
Ettinger came to UB as a physical biochemist, and early in his career studied diseases tied to defects related to copper metabolism. Later, he specialized in protein chemistry and the many roles proteins perform in the human body. “There was an explosion of knowledge and understanding about proteins while I was developing my interest,” he says.
Ettinger's broad background in biology, physical biochemistry, mechanisms of enzymes and physical chemistry, and his exposure to different approaches and experiences served him well, he notes. “It made me fearless about trying new things, and that kept things exciting and interesting for me.”
Ettinger developed his colorful teaching style while lecturing in front of undergraduate, graduate and medical students — especially medical students. “When I taught medical students, I wanted to hold their attention and get them excited and interested,” he says. “That’s why I would call a collagen protein ‘collagen superstar.’ This same protein is more or less able to take care of your body and plays a big role in taking care of your vision. I wanted to wake them up so they would understand how amazing that is.
“I often used the phrase ‘the forest for the trees,’” he continues. “I wanted them to see the big picture, because once you understand a subject, you can see what’s really important and critical.”
“The forest for the trees” could also have applied to the mounds of books and periodicals that piled up high on Ettinger’s desk. “He had so many journals and books in his office that you almost couldn’t see him at his desk,” O’Brian says.
Ettinger is proud of the 18 students who received doctorates in his lab, some of whom “have contributed to the development of new and revolutionary discoveries.”
"I never had a student who didn’t finish the PhD program,” he adds.
Ettinger introduced a small-group, problem-based learning approach to medical education that was student-driven. He also developed a teaching-learning style for senior undergraduates that relied on the discussion of current research articles.
Gerald B. Koudelka, PhD ’84, associate dean for research and sponsored programs in the College of Arts and Sciences, says he owes a debt to Ettinger, whom he studied under. “It’s because of Murray that I learned to think critically and to have the confidence to think independently.
“Murray modeled behavior that I have tried to emulate as a faculty member,” adds Koudelka, who also is a professor in the Department of Biological Sciences. “The tremendous affection students had for him came from the genuine interest he had in helping them grow and do the best they could.”
Many times, students chose Ettinger as the winner of, or runner-up, for the Louis A. and Ruth Siegel Award for Excellence in Teaching.
Grover Waldrop, PhD ’88, professor of biochemistry at Louisiana State University, says Ettinger was his mentor when he was a PhD student in the Jacobs School. “I wouldn’t be where I am today without Dr. Ettinger,” he explains. “He knew what was better for me more than I did, and he had my best interests at heart all the time. He was selfless, and students knew that and appreciated him for it. It was never about him. It was about helping students achieve their goals and be successful.”
The Murray J. Ettinger PhD Student Emergency Fund has been established as a tribute to Ettinger and his dedication to students. The fund will provide assistance to students in the Jacobs School who are experiencing an unforeseen hardship that may impact their ability to continue their studies. To make a gift to the fund and leave a message in Ettinger’s honor, visit the Giving to UB website.