Noted chemist Martin Mathews, PhD, 1912-2002

Noted Chemist Martin Mathews, Ph.D., 1912-2002

March 1, 2002

After a 30-year career researching basic biochemistry and biophysics, Martin Mathews, Ph.D., professor emeritus in the departments of pediatrics and biochemistry, and former faculty member of the Kennedy Mental Retardation Research Center at the University of Chicago, died Feb. 6, 2002, from heart failure at his Hyde Park home. He was 89.

"His ideas on tissue repair and tissue remodeling were far ahead of their time," said Nancy Schwartz, Ph.D., director of the Kennedy Center and professor of pediatrics, biochemistry and molecular biology, and developmental biology. "Only now are we beginning to put some of those ideas into practice."

Specializing in connective tissue and the evolution of collagen and proteoglycan molecules, Mathews approached science from an evolutionary perspective. "He tried to understand why these molecules worked the way they did based on how they evolved," Schwartz said. "He always looked at his work in a more dynamic and three-dimensional context."

Mathews also pioneered the production of chemical and structural standards for glycosaminoglycans, according to Schwartz. "His work served as the bread and butter for the field."

Born May 30, 1912, in Chicago, Mathews grew up in the Humboldt Park neighborhood. He earned his bachelor's and master's degrees in chemistry from the University of Chicago in 1936 and 1941, respectively. He then served in the U.S. Army from 1941 to 1945, rising in rank from a 2nd lieutenant to a captain. He returned to his studies at the U. Chicago after the war, earning his Ph.D. in chemistry in 1949.

That same year, Mathews joined the U. Chicago faculty as a research assistant. During his career at the University, he advanced to full professor by 1967, serving 10 years before retiring as a professor emeritus in the departments of pediatrics and biochemistry. His academic pursuits include a year's sabbatical at King's College at the University of London. Over the years Mathews authored scores of papers and abstracts, and earned membership to the American Chemical Society, the American Society of Biological Chemists, Sigma Xi and the Society for Complex Carbohydrates.

During retirement, Mathews became more interested in the "philosophy" of science as a founding member of the Bateson Society -- a local organization that holds discussions about the work of Gregory Bateson, a biological anthropologist who was long interested in how the mind constructs reality or how individual people's psychological make-up reconstructs events. Mathews also pursued sculpturing and mask-making with the same fervor.

"He thought everything in life was a form of a mask," which reflected his interest in epistemology, said Lawrence Pottenger, M.D., Ph.D., associate professor of orthopedic surgery. "He changed my life. For years I had the pleasure of having many conversations with him," he said reflecting on his 20-year friendship with Mathews.

Pottenger credits his longtime friend for leading him to the idea of teaching Doctors as Helpers and Guides -- an undergraduate course that has gained popularity over the past three years. "He gave me the courage to think like that," he said. "He was all about helping people think."

"Marty was a very engaging person," Schwartz said. "He loved to talk about science and a variety of other topics. His students loved to talk with him, and he'd spend an exceptional amount of time with them. His thinking would go beyond the usually considered aspects of a subject. He was a very interesting, broad-thinking individual.

Mathews is survived by Alma (Miller) Mathews, his wife of nearly 60 years; son James Mathews of Chicago; daughter Judith Mathews of Evanston; and grandchildren Ben and Anna Goldberger, and Noah Silver-Mathews.

A memorial service is planned for 2 p.m. March 9 in Ida Noyes Hall.