Not only was Seymour Abrahamson an internationally known geneticist, he also had amazing people skills, said friends and colleagues Sunday, the day after Abrahamson died from cancer. He was 88.
The UW-Madison professor was also the husband of Supreme Court Justice Shirley Abrahamson, the longest serving justice on the bench and a former chief justice. The couple would have been married 63 years in August, Shirley Abrahamson said in an email.
Abrahamson’s friend and colleague, Rayla Temin, described him as not only a great scholar and researcher, but an impeccable teacher. “He was known for his very lively teaching in genetics,” she said.
As a person, he was “wonderful, ebullient, life-loving, gracious and vital,” said Temin, a UW-Madison genetics professor emerita, who knew Abrahamson for 56 years. “He could engage anyone in conversation about anything.”
Abrahamson was a longtime professor of zoology, who was also known for studying the effects of atomic bombs on human survivors through the Hiroshima-based Radiation Effects Research Foundation, a collaboration between the Japanese and U.S. governments.
He lived and worked in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Japan, for seven years, and served as director and chief of research for the radiation foundation from 1986 to 1988. He worked for the organization again in the mid-’90s.
Abrahamson was born in New York City and graduated Phi Beta Kappa from Rutgers University. He received his Ph.D. in genetics from Indiana University, where he studied under the Nobel Laureate geneticist Herman J. Muller.
A World War II veteran, Abrahamson was a beneficiary of the GI Bill, according to his obituary.
He joined the UW-Madison faculty in 1961, teaching courses in zoology and genetics and supervising a genetics research laboratory. He twice served as the zoology department chair.
Antony Stretton met Abrahamson when Stretton was hired as a zoology professor in 1971. “He was a fantastic chair. Not only was he a very bright guy who did some nice research, he nurtured his faculty extremely well.”
Abrahamson would drop in for a chat about once a week, said Stretton, who is still a UW-Madison zoology professor. “In addition to that, he was asking in what way he could be helpful.”
Stretton said he also appreciated that Abrahamson had so much “emotional maturity,” which he said is unusual in an academic.
One thing that sticks out to Stretton was that Abrahamson would give shoulder rubs. “It was terrific. It meant he really cared about you as a person as well as about you as a faculty member.”
The word that Stretton said best describes Abrahamson is “mensch,” which is a great compliment in Yiddish and means a person of the highest integrity.
“He just always had something interesting to talk to you about,” said Temin, 80, who as a young researcher was fixed up by the Abrahamsons and would go on to marry the man from that matchmaking effort. That man was Howard Temin, the late Nobel Prize winner and UW-Madison oncologist.
Abrahamson is also survived by a son, Daniel, daughter-in-law, Tsan, and grandson, Moses Jonah. Private services are being planned.