Article by Hal White Photo by Kathy F. Atkinson November 14, 2017
Mahendra Kumar Jain, professor emeritus of chemistry and biochemistry at the University of Delaware, died Sept. 22. He was 78.
“He was a good and generous true friend to many,” said Hal White, professor emeritus of chemistry and biochemistry. “He engaged in substantive discussion and animated nonconfrontational dialogue. He loved to explore ideas and frequently enjoyed a vegetarian meal with wine and friends at local Indian or Italian restaurants where he knew the cooks and could request preparation of special dishes. Despite his substantial scientific contributions, he shunned fame or personal recognition.”
Born in India, he earned his bachelor of science degree at Holkar College, Indore, India, and his master’s degree at Vikram University in Ujjain. After lecturing for the government of Madhya Pradesh, Bhopal, India, he lectured at Punjabi University in Patiala. He moved from India to the Weizmann Institute in Israel, where he completed his Ph.D. in less than two years.
Dr. Jain came to the United States in 1967, conducting research at the University of Indiana in Bloomington until 1973. During this time, he published a book, The Bimolecular Lipid Membrane: A System, and wrote the first of more than 200 articles on phospholipases.
In the early 1970s, UD contemplated having a medical school, and in preparation, individuals were hired to serve as basic science faculty for it. In 1973, Dr. Jain was one of those hired, and when plans for a medical school were dropped, he moved to the Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry.
He was promoted to associate professor in 1975 and full professor in 1981. He took sabbatical leaves in Utrecht (1979-80), Göttingen (1986-87 and 1998) and Indian Institute of Science in Bangalore, India (1993-94).
In 1980, Dr. Jain coauthored a textbook, “Introduction to Biological Membranes,” with Roger Wagner in UD’s Department of Biological Sciences.
Collaborations with faculty at UD and elsewhere enabled Dr. Jain to make major contributions to understanding catalysis by enzymes embedded in membranes. Two of his undergraduate students each published more than 10 articles working in his lab. Despite having a small group, Dr. Jain was extremely productive, producing many articles often through collaborations. Among his coauthors are 11 current or former faculty colleagues at the University of Delaware (Bahnson, Chen, Dhurjati, Koh, Murray, Polenova, Rheingold, Sasser, Theopold, Wagner and White).
Dr. Jain was also a scholar of ancient Jain philosophy originally written in Prakrit, following in his father’s footsteps. He translated long documents into English, interpreted them and supported digitization of the old manuscripts. He published articles on the subject and posted them along with his father’s work on a website with free access.
He personally founded and financed a primary school in Sadhumar, India, which he would visit each year. He helped to build a hostel at an all-girls school in Rajasthan. In addition, he anonymously supported college education of a number of underprivileged promising students.
Dr. Jain had a love for nature, went out for long hikes and camping trips with colleagues and friends and was an avid gardener. His love of cooking used his chemical instincts to experiment with spices and vegetable combinations to create excellent dishes.
His daughter Dipti came from India to live with him in Newark, eventually going to the University of Delaware. She now lives with her family in Florida.
After his retirement in 2009, Dr. Jain continued to work in the department until he moved to Virginia in 2015 to live with his nephew and family.