AAI In Memoriam

Matthew F. Mescher

AAI extends condolences to the family, friends, and colleagues of Matthew F. Mescher, Ph.D. (AAI ‘79), an active and dedicated AAI member for over four decades who died on December 21.

Dr. Mescher was an emeritus professor of the University of Minnesota (UMN) Medical School where he was a faculty member for 22 years. He held an endowed professorship in the Department of Laboratory Medicine and Pathology and was the founding director of the UMN Center for Immunology.

Mescher served as a member of the AAI Finance Committee and was an invited speaker in the AAI President’s Symposium at IMMUNOLOGY2015™. He also served as a member of the AAI Fellowship Committee and as a lecturer for the AAI Advanced Immunology Course, including the years it was held on the UMN campus. Additionally, Mescher held successive terms on the editorial board of The Journal of Immunology as an associate, section, and deputy editor.

The following remembrance was co-authored by former AAI president Marc K. Jenkins, Ph.D., (AAI ’88; 2013–2014 AAI President), Regents and Distinguished McKnight University Professor, Department of Microbiology and Immunology, and director of the Center for Immunology, UMN and Harry T. Orr, Ph.D., professor and James Schindler and Bob Allison Translational Research Chair in Genetics in the Department of Laboratory Medicine and Pathology at UMN. AAI gratefully acknowledges their submission.

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Matthew F. Mescher, Ph.D., a longtime member of The American Association of Immunologists (AAI) and icon of immunology at the University of Minnesota (UMN), died on December 21, 2021, after a battle with cancer.

Matt was born and raised in Michigan. He earned a B.A. in chemistry from Hope College in Michigan and a Ph.D. in biochemistry and molecular biology from Harvard University. He bypassed postdoctoral training and stayed on at Harvard as a faculty member before moving to the Molecular Biology Institute in La Jolla, CA. In 1993, he moved to UMN where he held the Professorship for the Virginia and David C. Utz Land Grant Chair in Fundamental Immunobiology in the Department of Laboratory Medicine and Pathology for 22 years.

Matt started his research career at Harvard as a microbial biochemist. According to Matt’s Ph.D. advisor, Jack Strominger (AAI ’78), “Matt was an outstanding student. He came to the lab looking for an original problem. While everyone else in my lab was working on MHC class I structure, he chose to work on halobacteria surface structure. He soon found that no peptidoglycan was present, and the surface structure was dependent on the presence of a novel glycoprotein.” Matt went on to show that these bacteria, which turned out to be archaebacteria, use this protein to retain their shape in high-salt environments.

But Matt’s long-term research interest ended up being immunology. He was fascinated by the problem of how T lymphocytes detect and destroy tumors and virally infected cells. His early work sought to define the minimal signals needed to activate CD8 T cells. Matt approached the problem by producing artificial antigen-presenting cells (APC) consisting of liposomes or latex beads coated with purified MHC class I molecules, and later, adhesion and costimulatory molecules. He worked stepwise to assess the role of each ligand in the capacity of APCs to stimulate T cell receptor signaling, cytokine production, cell proliferation, cell survival, cytotoxicity, and tumor control. He began with cell culture systems and moved to studying these processes in mice. His research culminated in a principle known as the three-signal model of T cell activation that inspired much research in the field and is now taught in immunology courses around the world. His research achievements were recognized by his election to the UMN Academy of Excellence in Health Research and an invited lecture in the President’s Symposium at the 2015 annual meeting of the AAI.

Matt also contributed to immunology by serving on the AAI Finance and Fellowship Committees. He taught in the AAI Advanced Course and served as an associate, section, and deputy editor for The Journal of Immunology.

Matt was a transformational leader in immunology at the UMN. When he was recruited to Minnesota, he was charged with revitalizing the UMN immunology community which lacked a national identity and was dispersed across a large campus. Matt gathered a small group of faculty members from several departments who worked to organize the discipline. They succeeded in forming a new graduate program and the Center for Immunology with Matt as the director. Under Matt’s leadership, the center acquired contiguous laboratory space for a multidepartmental group of investigators working on the immune system. In his calm and confident way, Matt led the UMN Center for Immunology over several decades to become one of the strongest academic units at the UMN and one of the best immunology programs in the country. The UMN Center for Immunology continues today as a testament to Matt’s vision and leadership.

Matt’s legacy extends to his trainees, who continue in his footsteps and remember well his calm demeanor and wisdom. Michael Gerner, one of Matt’s Ph.D. students and now an assistant professor at the University of Washington, remembers Matt as “an outstanding mentor who provided a strong foundation of scientific rigor and critical thinking while helping students identify exciting and creative research directions. Most importantly, he built a wonderful home for all the graduate students in the Center for Immunology, where we all felt part of one united family.” Ross Kedl, another of Matt’s Ph.D. students and now a professor at the University of Colorado, credits his mentoring skills to Matt: “Almost everything I say as a mentor I can track back to Matt at some level.” Matt was also a mentor to many of the UMN’s future leaders, including former and future AAI presidents, Marc Jenkins and Stephen Jameson.

Matt’s colleagues at the UMN owe him a great debt of gratitude and will remember him as a leader, mentor, and friend. We will miss his sense of humor, love of golf and fast cars, and friendship in and out of the lab. We will marvel at his life well lived.

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Those wishing to honor Dr. Mescher’s memory are invited to consider a donation in support of the Mescher Trainee Enhancement Fund. For details, see “The Center for Immunology mourns the passing of Dr. Matthew Mescher.”

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