In Memoriam: Arnold Dunn, 85

The Emeritus Professor of Biological Sciences was a true Renaissance man. Equally passionate about science and the humanities, he strove to ensure students received a well-rounded education.
BySusan Bell

Emeritus Professor of Biological Sciences Arnold Dunn, who taught at USC Dornsife for 47 years and served as president of the USC Faculty Senate and as associate dean of the USC Graduate School, has died. He was 85.

Dunn died peacefully of natural causes on April 17, at the assisted living facility in Pasadena, Calif., where he had resided for the past 18 months, his son Jonathan Dunn said. He was surrounded by his family.

“We are grateful for everything Arnold taught us about learning, music, art and the beauty of nature,” Dunn’s family wrote in a tribute. “We are especially proud of the legacy of joyful learning and energetic scholarship that he leaves to the USC community across all academic disciplines.”

Born on Jan. 31, 1929, in Rochester, N.Y., Dunn was the son of Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe. His father, Alexander, was a tailor and rabbinical scholar. His mother, Dora Cohen, a labor and civil rights activist, was a strong supporter of women’s suffrage and workers’ rights, and knew union leader Eugene Debs personally.

Dunn earned his undergraduate degree in physiology from George Washington University in Washington, D.C., in 1950 and a Ph.D. in biochemistry from the University of Pennsylvania in 1955. He then completed a postdoctoral fellowship at New York University School of Medicine, where he was an assistant professor, before joining USC in 1962.

From 1962 to 2009, Dunn was a professor of cellular and molecular biology. He was among the first to use the isotope tritium to study glucose metabolism, researching insulin and other hormones that regulate metabolism. He published more than 80 scientific articles and was a visiting professor at such distinguished institutions as the Weizmann Institute of Science and Hebrew University in Israel and a visiting fellow at Princeton University’s Department of History.

His great contributions to the USC community include serving as president of the USC Faculty Senate and as associate dean of the USC Graduate School. Dunn also maintained a faculty presence in USC’s chapter of Phi Beta Kappa, where he served on the executive board.

Associate Provost Robin Romans remembers Dunn as a deeply inspirational teacher.

“Arnold was a very special person,” Romans said.  “He was a gentle soul, an eager mentor to students and faculty, a Renaissance man who lived along the intersection of science and the humanities.  He loved poetry, Latin, German, history, the worlds of the arts and sciences, and his many students.” 

Doug Capone, William and Julie Wrigley Chair in Environmental Studies and professor and chair of biological sciences, echoed those remarks.

“Arnie was an institution in biological sciences, a true scholar with a legendary breadth of interests, and highly respected by students and colleagues alike.”

During his long career Dunn received many honors and awards, including the USC Associates Award for Excellence in Teaching, the USC Associates Award for Creativity in Research and the USC Raubenheimer Distinguished Faculty Award, as well as twice receiving the Faculty Excellence Award from the Mortar Board National Senior Honor Society.

“Interaction with students was the most important thing to our father and he offered fatherly support, opening not just his office but his heart to them,” David Dunn said. “One of the reasons why he twice won a student-voted award was not just the excellence of his teaching, but who he was as a human being. He touched many lives.”

In 1995, Dunn received an honorary degree from Hebrew Union College.

His family said they were heartened that his legacy will continue through the Arnold S. Dunn Renaissance Scholarship for the Sciences, Arts and Humanities, an award created in 2002 for students pursuing simultaneous studies in sciences and humanities.  

In 2004, Dunn received a Faculty Lifetime Achievement Award from USC for his outstanding contributions as a scholar, teacher, mentor and colleague.

“An extraordinarily popular professor, Professor Dunn is known for his wit and what his colleagues describe as a ‘ferocious’ commitment to ensuring that students receive a challenging, well-rounded education,” read the citation from the Convocation program at the academic awards ceremony on March 11, 2004. “Passionate about science and the humanities, he skillfully blends the technical qualities of the scientist with the aesthetic sensitivities of the artist in his teaching and in his scholarship.”

Dunn loved Renaissance and Baroque art, classical music and New Orleans jazz, making several trips to Preservation Hall in New Orleans. While visiting his son David in the Czech Republic, Dunn made a special journey to visit the birthplace of Gustav Mahler, one of his favorite composers.

In addition to his fondness for European travel, he was a great nature lover and an avid lifelong hiker.

Dunn is survived by his wife Doris, his sons David and Jonathan, his granddaughters Nuriyyeh Brett and Tajalli Dunn and his great-grandson Caleb Brett.

A private funeral was held on April 22.