The Passing of Marsha Altschuler

To the Williams community,

With the passing of Marsha Altschuler, Professor of Biology, Emerita, and former chair of the biology department, on Thursday, September 12, I want to take this opportunity to recognize her many contributions to the Williams community and share a few remembrances from friends and colleagues who knew her well.

A geneticist whose research interests centered on the detailed structure and organization of nuclear DNA, Marsha came to the college in 1985 after postdoctoral research positions at Cornell University and Washington University. At Williams, she taught a range of biology courses and collaborated with numerous students conducting independent studies and honors thesis research.

Marsha was a mainstay in teaching the biology curriculum. Her teaching was innovative, covering topics considered cutting-edge at the time, including epigenetics and molecular genetics of development. “She made a very strong intellectual mark on our Genetics courses, both in the labs and especially the lectures,” said Derek Dean, lecturer in biology. “Our current genetics professors still use pedagogy and discuss studies that she brought to the curriculum.” She also offered courses designed for non-science majors, helping them to understand genomics and human genetics and linking both topics to associated social issues.

Throughout her career, Marsha conducted research on the model single-celled organism Tetrahymena thermophile and was awarded grants from the Research Corporation, the National Science Foundation, and the National Institutes of Health. She also spent a year at Seattle’s Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, where she worked with Meng-Chao Yao, a leading authority in micro-injection techniques used in Tetrahymena research.

An engaged member of the Williams community, Marsha contributed greatly to the life of the college. In addition to her departmental courses, she taught in the BIMO program, Williams’ summer program for teachers, and the Hughes program for high school students. She also served on numerous committees, the Board of Governors for the Faculty Club, and as chair of the Science and Technology Studies program. Outside of campus she was a regular contributor to Reading for the Blind and a member of Congregation Beth Israel in North Adams.

Friends and colleagues recall her terrific sense of humor, most recently in a letter to The Berkshire Eagle earlier this month. She will be remembered for her devotion to Indiana University basketball, and for the life-size cardboard cutouts of Derek Jeter, Elvis, and Sheldon from the television show Big Bang Theory, which greeted visitors to her lab.

Despite a diagnosis of multiple sclerosis (MS), Marsha maintained amazing energy, not only in her professional focus and collegiality, but also for candlepin bowling at the Faculty Club, for zipping around campus on her red Segway, and for extensive travel, including to Alaska, New Zealand, and Scandinavia. “Her omnipresent positive attitude and cheerful spirit in the face of adversity is an inspiration to everyone whom she came into contact with,” said Hank Art, director of CES and the Environmental Studies Program, and Rosenburg Professor of Environmental Studies and Biology, Emeritus. “It was a privilege to have known her as a colleague and a friend.”

Marsha is survived by her three sisters, Susan Perlman, Carole Brown, and Jean McWilliams; her brother, Michael Altschuler; and her nieces and nephews.

As a reminder, a graveside service will be held today at 1 p.m. at the Williams College Cemetery. The family welcomes all who wish to join them in mourning and remembrance. The Flynn and Dagnoli Funeral Home in North Adams is overseeing arrangements.

Our thoughts are with Marsha’s colleagues, family, and friends.


Maud S. Mandel
Professor of History; Program in Jewish Studies