In Memoriam: Finkelstein, Richard Alan

In Memoriam: Finkelstein, Richard Alan


Richard Alan Finkelstein, Ph.D., microbiologist, educator, researcher, and professor emeritus, died at home in Columbia, Missouri on June 8, 2023, at age 93. Dr. Finkelstein was globally respected by the scientific community for his catalytic research into cholera—a potentially fatal infectious disease that has caused seven pandemics over the past two centuries—and his efforts to create a vaccine for it. Over the course of his career, he maintained 50 years of continuous membership to the American Society for Microbiology, during which he served in a number of leadership roles including President of the Texas and Missouri Branches as well as on the Board of Governors. He gave numerous lectures and presented posters in conjunction with his wife, Dr. Mary Boesman-Finkelstein.

Born in New York City, Finkelstein discovered his interest in bacteriology while attending the Bronx High School of Science. He enrolled, at age 16, at the University of Oklahoma, where he earned a Bachelor of Science in 1950. He then received his Master’s and his Ph.D. at the University of Texas-Austin where his doctoral thesis began the start of his research into cholera—which remained his focus during his 50-year career.

While working as a teaching fellow in the microbiology department at University of Texas-Austin, he married Helen Rosenberg. They had three children—Sheri, Mark and Laurie—before they moved in 1958 when he became chief of the bioassay section at the Walter Reed Army Institute of Research (WRAIR) in Washington, D.C.

From 1964 to 1967, the family lived in Bangkok, Thailand, where Dr. Finkelstein was chief of the Department of Bacteriology and Mycology at the United States Medical Compound at the Southeast Asia Treaty Organization’s (SEATO) Cholera Research Laboratory in Bangkok. He attained the rank of major in the United States Army Reserves Medical Service Corps and was honorably discharged in 1966 after sixteen years of service. Dr. Finkelstein and family returned to the United States in 1967 where he was a Professor in the Department of Microbiology at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical School in Dallas.  After they divorced, Helen R. Finkelstein passed away in 1977.

In 1976, he married Dr. Mary Boesman-Finkelstein, a biochemist in his laboratory at the university. The same year, he received the Robert Koch Prize, the highest science award given by the German government.

Dr. Finkelstein was recruited as Chairman of the Department of Microbiology by the University of Missouri-Columbia School of Medicine in 1979 and the couple moved. Two years later, their “recombinant DNA product,” Sarina, was born. Dr. Finkelstein became instrumental in developing the department through his recruitment of exceptional faculty, his own research, 243 publications in peer-reviewed scientific literature, and the significant grant funding he secured. Dr. Boesman-Finkelstein, who worked with her husband for 30 years, was a co-author of many of those publications until she passed away in 2007. The Drs. Finkelstein welcomed postdoctoral students and scientists into their home from many different countries. Together with Sarina they traveled frequently, collaborating with and presenting their research at scientific conferences around the world.

During his tenure, Dr. Finkelstein was designated as a Millsap Distinguished Professor from 1985 to 2000, received a Chancellor’s Award for Outstanding Faculty Research in Biological Sciences, a Sigma Xi Research Award, and was a Curators’ Professor from 1990 to 2000, all at the University of Missouri. Finkelstein also maintained 50 years of continuous membership to the American Society for Microbiology, during which he served in a number of leadership roles including President of the Texas and Missouri Branches as well as on the Board of Governors. Additionally, he served as a Medical Consultant to the World Health Organization, on the Cholera Advisory Board of the National Institutes of Health, and a Consultant for the Institute of Medicine at the National Academy of Sciences.

Dr. Finkelstein’s laboratory made major contributions to the identification and characterization of Vibrio cholerae, its cell-cell adhesion and the resulting immune response. His laboratory provided samples of the pure toxin and reagents to more than 200 other researchers working to advance cholera research and treatment. In addition, Finkelstein holds a patent for a live candidate cholera vaccine. In his acceptance speech for the Robert Koch Award, Dr. Finkelstein said that “the satisfactions of meeting and contributing to the solutions of challenging research problems, which expand the horizons of our understanding of nature and which may in some way or time contribute to human welfare, are rewarding.”

Dr. Finkelstein’s brother, Lawrence S. Finkelstein, predeceased him. He is survived by four children: Sheri Schoenwald (California), Mark Finkelstein (Texas) and Laurie Charsinsky (Australia) by his first wife, Helen; and Sarina Finkelstein-Leventi (New York) by his second wife, Mary; nine grandchildren, two great-grandchildren, one niece Susan Finkelstein, as well as a legacy of former graduate and postdoctoral students. 

Obituary Submitted By:
Sarina Finkelstein