Passing of Ellen M. Rasch

September 16, 2016
In Memoriam: Ellen M. Rasch

Susan A. Gerbi, Brown University, Division of Biology and Medicine, Susan_Gerbi@Brown.edu
and Paul J. Monaco, East Tennessee State University, College of Medicine, MONACOP@mail.etsu.edu

Dr. Ellen Myrberg Rasch, an early member of the Histochemical Society and the
American Society for Cell Biology (ASCB), passed away on the evening of July 31,
2016 at age 89 after a long illness of Parkinson’s disease. She leaves behind her
husband Dr. Robert Rasch, son Martin and several grandchildren and great
grandchildren. Drs. Ellen and Robert Rasch were married for 66 years.

Ellen grew up in Chicago and attended the University of Chicago for her
undergraduate and graduate training, obtaining her Ph.D. in botany in 1950 under the
guidance of James M. Beal. After a year as a histology assistant at the American Meat
Institute in Chicago, she resumed her training at the University of Chicago with Hewson
Swift. She was initially funded by a USPHS (NIH)/NCI postdoctoral fellowship and then
became a research associate in the Swift lab. Watson and Crick published the structure
of the DNA double helix two years after Ellen began her postdoc, but it was already
evident that DNA was the hereditary material. Swift introduced Ellen to
microspectrophotometry. With this introduction, Ellen was off and running, and she
developed Feulgen-DNA cytophotmetry to measure the DNA content of nuclei from a
wide range of organisms, including Diptera (true flies), Orthoptera (grasshoppers,
crickets) and Hymenoptera (ants, bees, wasps) and Araneae (spiders). She became
one of the leading experts in this methodology, publishing reviews on this subject over a
span of three decades beginning in 1956. The rule of DNA constancy stated that the
amount of DNA was the same in all diploid cells of an organism. Ellen became
especially interested in exceptions to the rule, as evidenced by polyploidy and also by
DNA amplification in the “DNA puffs” of the giant polytene chromosomes of the fly
Sciara. During her career she also studied mechanisms of meiosis in unisexual species
of fish, as well as in male wasps and bees. She documented the first known triploid fish
species and provided evidence for apomictic (asexual) reproduction in fishes. Her
research also included determination of absolute haploid genome size in organisms as
varied as bryophytes, white ash trees, protozoa, Drosophilia, and in many endangered
species of birds and of great cats. Her later work explored concepts of DNA
endoduplication and chromosome diminution during early stages of copepod
development.

Hewson Swift was active in the Histochemical Society and served as it
President (1974). Therefore, it was natural that Ellen would also become active in the
Histochemical Society where she held leadership positions: member of Council (two
terms), Acting Secretary (1973-1974) and then Secretary (1975-1979), Nominations
Committee, and Treasurer (1984-1986). Starting in 1983, Ellen was on the editorial
board of The Journal of Histochemistry and Cytochemistry.

Hewson Swift was a founding member of the ASCB, Program Chair of the first
ASCB meeting and served as ASCB’s third President. Ellen followed in her mentor’s
footsteps and was also an active member of ASCB. She served as Session Chair at
several ASCB annual meetings (1968 – 1971), and she was elected to the ASCB
Council (1972-1976). This overlapped her membership on the Council of the
Histochemical Society, and she provided a link between both organizations. A dozen
years earlier, discussions had been held on whether to found ASCB as a new Society or
to merge with an existing Society. The initial mission statement of the Histochemical
Society was that it is “an organization of scientists sharing a passion for the
development and use of visual techniques that provide biochemical and molecula
information about the structure and function of cells, tissues and organs and for the
dissemination of this knowledge through education and outreach.” Although the same
could also be said for ASCB, the Histochemical Society developed in the direction of
pathology. Meanwhile, ASCB broadened its initial focus from electron microscopy to
include technologies and new discoveries in molecular biology, genetics, biochemistry,
and light microscopy. With the strong overlap of research interests of both societies,

Ellen Rasch’s membership on both of their Councils at the same time was helpful.
Ellen’s election to these leadership positions in both scientific societies reflected
the high regard of her peers for her careful science. Her research was funded by NIH,
NSF and the Whitehall Foundation. Her promise as an emerging scientist was
recognized by a USPHS (NIH) Research Career Development Award (RCDA)(1967-
1972). One year prior, in 1966 Ellen was elected as a Fellow of the American
Association for Advancement of Science (AAAS). She was also a Fellow of the Royal
Microscopic Society.

It is important to put Ellen’s accomplishments and honors into perspective of their
era. At that time it was common for women to follow their husband to wherever his
career took him. In 1962 Ellen’s husband took a faculty position at the Medical School of
Marquette University in Milwaukee where she became a Research Associate Professor
in the Department of Biology. Three years later she became a tenured Associate
Professor and was promoted to Professor in 1968. In 1975 she was appointed as the
Todd C. Wehr Distinguished Professor of Biophysics at Marquette. However, after three
years she left this endowed Chair to follow her husband to East Tennessee State
University (ETSU) where Dr. Ronald Cowden, the Associate Dean of Basic Sciences,
recruited him to be the founding Chair of Physiology in the newly established College of
Medicine. Cowden had an ulterior motive in this appointment, as he also wanted to lure
Ellen to ETSU. This strategy worked, and Ellen left her endowed Chair at Marquette to
become a Research Professor at ETSU in 1978. She served as Interim Chair of the
Department of Biophysics in 1986.

We recall many of Ellen’s attributes:
  • She was selfless - as a mentor and colleague. She helped anyone in any way that she could.
  • She was a distinguished teacher at Marquette and at ETSU, sharing her breadth of knowledge of biology and latest advances in the field. Ellen received the Marquette 1975 Teaching Excellence Award and the 1989 ETSU Distinguished Faculty Award.
  • She was frugal and a good steward of limited research funds.
  • She loved chocolate –she packed several pounds of Fannie May “mint-melt-aways” on dry ice for a fish collecting expedition in Mexico.
  • She was always of good humor – when she moved from Marquette to ETSU, her new lab was not ready so she set up a microscope lab in her spare bedroom at home, laughing about her camera lucida drawings of fish chromosomes with bicentennial wallpaper in the background.
  • She had the best collection of biological stains of anyone in the southeastern US if not the entire country - if ever someone needed to visualize something unusual, Ellen always had the appropriate stain to use.
She was a mentor to both of us and we will miss her.

A version of this notice is in the ASCB newsletter