Ackers, biophysicist and human hemoglobin expert, dies at 71

Gary K. Ackers, PhD, professor emeritus, died from problems related to early-onset Alzheimer’s disease Friday, May 20, 2011, in Oro Valley, Ariz. He was 71.

Ackers, the former Raymond H. Wittcoff Professor and head of the Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Biophysics, had lived in Arizona since 2006 with his wife and scientific colleague, Jo M. Holt, PhD.

Ackers was born in Dodge City, Kansas, and earned undergraduate degrees in chemistry and mathematics from Harding College in Searcy, Ark., in 1961. He earned a doctorate in physiological chemistry from the Johns Hopkins University in 1964. He then held positions at the University of Virginia School of Medicine and the Johns Hopkins University before coming to Washington University School of Medicine in 1989 as department head.

At Washington University, he established the molecular biophysics program and greatly expanded the faculty in the area of biophysics. He remained department head until 1996, when he returned to research and teaching. He became professor emeritus in 2007.

His research focused on the thermodynamics of macromolecular assemblies, in particular oxygen binding to human hemoglobin and protein-DNA systems. Ackers was known for the rigor of his experimental methods, his passion for training scientists and his influence on a generation of biophysicists.

In 1984, he served as president of the Biophysical Society, a national organization, and, in 1987, he co-founded the Gibbs Conference on Biothermodynamics, which honored him in 2010 with the inaugural Gary K. Ackers Lecture in Biothermodynamics.

“Gary Ackers’ research showed the value of collecting painstaking measurements to quantify biological responses,” says Thomas Ellenberger, DVM, PhD, the current Wittcoff Professor and head of biochemistry and molecular biophysics. “With his data, he could explain complex mechanisms and predict outcomes that defied more intuitive and superficial approaches. Gary’s vision of biology drove the growth of biophysics at Washington University and led to the establishment of a graduate training program and affiliated research groups that are a unique asset of our institution.”

Ackers also is remembered for his sense of humor and propensity for science puns. During the course of his career, he lectured across the United States, Europe, the former Soviet Union and China.

A memorial fund for trainees in biophysics has been established in his name at Johns Hopkins, and contributions may be made to the Gary K. Ackers Travel Fellowship Fund by contacting Richard Hastings at

The Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Biophysics is collecting remembrances from his colleagues and will post them on the department’s website. Remembrances may be sent to

He is survived by his wife, Jo M. Holt, who was his close collaborator in the last decade of his research career, and by her son, James Hazzard. Ackers also is survived by his first wife, Naomi Caldwell; their children Lisa Ackers, Sandra Ackers and Keith Ackers; and two grandchildren. Funeral arrangements were private.