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In Memoriam: Bruce Cunningham



In Memoriam: Bruce Cunningham

Bruce Cunningham, cell biologist and retired faculty member at The Scripps Research Institute (TSRI), passed away on March 1, 2017. He was 77 years old.

“Bruce was an accomplished and well-published neurobiologist, a member of numerous societies throughout his career and a valuable member of the TSRI family,” said TSRI Professor John Elder, a long-time colleague of Cunningham’s.

“I was fortunate to come to know Bruce through his service on the institute Appointment and Promotions Committee. He was a clear thinker and insightful scientist with a broad viewpoint, and it was a pleasure to work with him over many years,” said James Williamson, Vice President of Academic Affairs and Dean of Graduate and Postdoctoral Studies at TSRI.

Cunningham was born in Winnebago, Illinois, on January 18, 1940. He was the second of five sons and a fierce athlete until his sports career was cut short by an injury. He then traveled with teams as a reporter for a local newspaper.

While not initially planning to go into the science, Cunningham got a chance summer job at the National Institutes of Health during college—a move that sparked a lifelong interest in research. He went on to earn his undergraduate degree in Chemistry from Dubuque University and his PhD in Biochemistry from Yale University.

In 1966, Cunningham joined Rockefeller University to work as a postdoctoral fellow for future Nobel laureate Gerald Edelman. The two ended up collaborating for 46 years.

Cunningham’s research focused on understanding the relationships between protein structures and functions, particularly proteins involved at the cell surface and in cell-cell interactions. Shortly after 1966, as a member of the Edelman laboratory, Cunningham was a key participant in determining the first amino acid sequence of a complete protein. He went on to study concanavalin A, a protein that can induce cell division by acting at the cell surface. In the 1980s, what was then the Edelman-Cunningham laboratory turned its focus to cell adhesion molecules, which have important roles in cell-cell interactions starting during early embryogenesis.

Cunningham and Edelman arrived at TSRI in 1992. Until his retirement in 2012, Cunningham elucidated the structures of several cell adhesion molecules and shed light on the molecular biology of their gene expression, their variants arising through nucleic acid splicing and their roles in regulating cellular processes.

Cunningham is remembered by his students, friends and family as a dedicated mentor, curious world traveler, photographer and angler extraordinaire.

He is survived by his wife, Katrina; children Douglas Cunningham and Jennifer Saam; and four grandchildren.

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cunningham lab
Bruce Cunningham poses with a lab member for the TSRI Annual Report in 2000. (Photo by Michael Balderas.)

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Outside the lab, Cunningham was known as a master angler.