In Memoriam - George Harold Patterson, Ph.D.



George Patterson imageNIBIB, NIH, and the Intramural Research Program community sadly mourn the passing of George Patterson, Ph.D., on June 20, 2021, after a courageous battle with cancer. He was 50. George was a groundbreaking and world-renowned researcher in the development of photoactivatable fluorescent imaging probes, and a tenured Senior Investigator in the NIBIB Intramural Section on Biophotonics. He was a respected global leader in the field of photoactivatable microscopy and was widely considered unrivaled in the development of new methods using photoswitching and photoconversion of proteins.  NIBIB’s Director, Dr. Bruce Tromberg, said “NIBIB, NIH, and the biomedical community have lost a brilliant scientist and a genuinely compassionate and caring individual. He will be greatly missed by friends and colleagues throughout the NIH and around the world.”

George Patterson in lab with co-workers

Patterson Lab: Kwame Appiagyei-Opoku (postbac), Gaetan Herbomel, Ph.D., George Patterson (Intramural Lab PI), Kristin Rainey, Namrate Ojha, Ph.D.

George’s research focused on developing tools to study cell biology, including novel fluorescent probes and their application to challenging biological problems. Among his most notable achievements was the development of the world’s first photoactivatable green fluorescent protein, which enabled the creation by Drs. Eric Betzig and Harald Hess of the super-resolution technique known as photoactivated localization microscopy (PALM), for which Dr. Eric Betzig received the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 2014.

Dr. Patterson was honored by the Royal Microscopical Society (RMS) as this year’s first recipient of the Society’s prestigious Scientific Achievement Award, and he received an NIH Director’s Award in 2016. He was an internationally respected pioneer in the development of probes and techniques for diffraction-limited and sub-diffraction limited fluorescence imaging, with over 13,000 citations on the Web of Science, including 1,000 citations per year for the past six years. George Patterson sitting outside by a river

Since starting his own lab at NIBIB in 2009, Dr. Patterson continued to innovate in the development of novel fluorescent proteins and their application to biological discovery. He developed new and improved genetically encoded fluorescent proteins for use as markers and sensors, such as photoswitchable PSmOrange and photoactivatable red fluorescent protein. He also contributed fundamentally to techniques for single-molecule tracking, improving both resolution and deep tissue imaging in multi-focal structured illumination microscopy, such as through incorporating two-photon imaging. 

Dr. Patterson provided valuable service to the NIH and greater biomedical communities, most recently as a proposal reviewer for the Chan-Zuckerberg Initiative; as a member of the Earl Stadtman Investigator Search Committee (Biomedical Imaging/Biophysics/Physics); and on NIBIB’s Anti-Harassment Working Group. He will also be remembered as an outstanding mentor with a commitment to recruiting diverse mentees and staff to his laboratory during his tenure track. George’s passing is a great loss for his many colleagues and friends in NIBIB, around the NIH, and internationally. George is survived by his wife Susanne Neumann, and children Isabella (11) and Max (9).


Submitted by Ryoma Ohi (not verified) on Fri, 06/25/2021 - 10:05

George Patterson was my classmate in the IGP at Vanderbilt. We started graduate school in 1993, and were in one of the first classes of the umbrella graduate program at VUMC. George was one of our stars. But you would never know this, because he was unassuming and always at ease. He was generous with his time and funny. He started down his path in Dave Piston's lab, working on fluorescent proteins when the research community began to realize the potential of them. Of course, we all know that he went on to the Lippincott-Schwartz lab (then at the NIH), and the rest is history after he developed photo-activatable GFP. I am lucky to have spent time with him in our formative years. Rest In Peace, George. You will be missed.

Submitted by Desi Conway (not verified) on Fri, 06/25/2021 - 13:49

I had the privilege of working at NIBIB with Dr. Patterson for several years and am deeply saddened by his passing. Dr. Patterson was always willing to answer my questions and answered with enthusiasm and patience. He was quick to smile and make you feel important in the room, all while he surely knew a suggested alternative method. He loved his family and would happily chat about them and their accomplishments. His leadership, kindness and knowledge is irreplaceable.

Submitted by Prasanna Satpu… (not verified) on Fri, 06/25/2021 - 14:05

George was a rare and precious gem of a person in a rough world. He was a famous rock star cell biologist who made me feel welcome even as he helped me with really small stuff when I was a naive (read ignorant) new postdoc in the JLS lab. I still experience positive repercussions from my brief time working with George in all aspects of my work to this day.

I send my love to his wonderful wife and children.

Submitted by Suliana Manley (not verified) on Fri, 06/25/2021 - 18:11

Our dear George.

George MADE my years at the NIH. He took me under his wing, checked that I wasn't too lost, was gentle when I was, initiated expeditions for coffee or a slushy as the occasion required, all while doing his own brilliant thing. Thank you George, for the amazing science and the warm friendship.

Here is a message from George in 2014 that made me smile to re-read.
"Yes, you and I are both blessed with beautiful children. I consider them the most important contribution I could make to the world. Perhaps you also sometimes look at your children and think “You’re welcome world”. But do you also notice right after that thought that one of them will do something daring and maybe a little stupid. And in your mind you extrapolate that behavior out 10 and 20 years to a point when it might actually matter in their lives. For me, that’s when another hair turns gray and falls out ..."

Love to you and your memory George, and to your beautiful children and Susanne.

Submitted by Robert Phair (not verified) on Fri, 06/25/2021 - 19:15

I knew George as a collaborator in the Lippincott-Schwartz lab during the NIH era. One of my mentors used to say, "When a scientist dies it's like a library burning to the ground." George's library was a special place, and I'm fortunate to have had a few years to wander in its stacks.

Submitted by Markus Elsner (not verified) on Sat, 06/26/2021 - 09:22

I still cannot quite believe it.
As everybody that worked in the JLS lab in these days, George was a rock in a stormy sea that you could turn to for advice, help and common sense.
Most of all he was so important for making the lab such a welcoming place.
I can only imagine how Susanne, Isabella and Max must feel :(

Submitted by Alberto Diaspro (not verified) on Mon, 06/28/2021 - 02:12

I still have in mind his smile, his simple way of explaining things and his fundamental contribution in microscopy towards the development of PALM.
George was simply a great scientist and person.

Submitted by Zeno Lavagnino (not verified) on Mon, 06/28/2021 - 02:36

Deeply saddened by this. During my undergrad years I studied several seminal papers authored by George, which deeply affected my interest in microscopy and biophysics. When I first met him during my visit as a PhD student at NIBIB, it felt like I was meeting a true giant in Science. And only then, I realized I had just met not only a great scientist, but an amazing human being, a kind, funny, eclectic man. I will always cherish my time with him, from our pop-corn chit-chats during the biophysical society meeting poster sessions, to his Vanderbilt tales and jokes, to the discussions on music and the blues. He was one of the reasons why I wanted to join the Piston Lab and when I asked him what it was like to be in that lab, he simply told me "you'll have fun". He was definitely right. He was a true inspiration and a great mentor for young scientist and he's going to be unbelievably missed. I'm really glad I got to know him. My life has been richer, because of that. Goodbye, Soul Man.

Submitted by Hank Eden (not verified) on Mon, 06/28/2021 - 13:35

I was privileged to work with George before and following my retirement as NIBIB’s Deputy Scientific Director. He was one of the most prominent stars of NIBIB’s IRP and a brilliant scientist internationally respected for his remarkable research achievements. In addition, he was one of the kindest, most genuine, and good-natured people I’ve ever known. He may have also been the humblest. I recall, for example, that when he gave a presentation at one of the periodic reviews required of NIH scientists, he was too modest in his introduction to remind the reviewers of his historic work in creating the world’s first photoactivatable green fluorescent protein (an essential component of PALM super-resolution microscopy). On the other hand, I remember, how proud and happy he was following the birth of Isabella and Max. His family and extended family of lab members were always uppermost in his thoughts. His wonderful memory will endure among his many friends, colleagues, and admirers.

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on Tue, 06/29/2021 - 15:07

Friends of George

George worked at the bench next door to the one which I inherited from Roman. George recognized that I, a physician-scientist-professor-department chair, knew nothing about navigating a computer particularly an old one using russian programs (thanks, Roman!) and a new laboratory. About the only thing I knew was location of the men’s room! With a huge smile and amazing patience, he led me through the labyrinth. We bonded on day one!
I asked about his research….PAGFP which was a new concept for me. I marveled at his skill, perseverance and enthusiasm as he explained the concept and his progress. Excited by the scope of his work and its implications for cell biology and medicine, i said “George, this will make you famous”. In his modest and scientifically critical manner, he replied that my prognosis was wrong largely for technical reasons, which I have long forgotten. Fortunately, my diagnosis was correct. Photoactivatable fluorescent probes remain as powerful tools for cell biology and were critical for development of super resolution microscopy. George remained modest….but famous!
Our paths crossed many times in the following 15 or more years. We remained friends who shared current science interests, family news and humorous stories of various quality!
George was a big man physically but very graceful in movement (as in the Indian dance routine Jennifer had videod). He was also a VERY big man in patience, thoughtfulness, understanding, love of family, pride and concern for others. In yiddish, the word which describes George is “mensch”….a wonderful and caring person of great ability.
We grieve with his family and friends who loved him. He will surely live on in the acts of goodness which he constantly performed.
Win Arias (and Lyuba)

Submitted by Kasturi Mitra (not verified) on Wed, 06/30/2021 - 08:23

Hi George,
Its been a long time. I am sure you are fine where ever you are. The glory of your contributions in science will only increase every passing day. Our papers using your constructs with photoconvertable proteins will have special meaning now. YOUR PA-GFP and the following ones. Your influence will never cease to exist. Your help, your sincerely kind words and your humble way of being was so touching.

Most of the days in JLS's lab, I would see you first as I walked in. Will never forget your Elvis head cover on that Halloween day....I laughed the whole day about it. The chillies that you grew and shared with us in the lab. And the blunder I did once about describing a dream to you....will always remember your expressions and the laugh that we shared on that. Your way of being was so admirable and noble......nobody can help but appreciate.

Gratitude, George. World is a poorer place without you. Wishing the best to Susanne and the kids.

Submitted by Angela Wanding… (not verified) on Wed, 06/30/2021 - 11:01

Dear George --
Your contributions will continue to the light the way for new discoveries on the inner workings of cells and tissues. I believe you will be smiling upon all of these ventures and hopefully feeling the joy inspired by your pioneering accomplishments. I remember when you came to New Mexico some years ago now, and the seminar was filled to overflowing with students, faculty and staff shoulder to shoulder in the aisles, listening at the edge of their seats and inspired by the marvelous glimpses gained into the spectacular beauty of cell biology using the fluorescent probes you and your team pioneered. May your spirit always be near to your loved ones and bring them comfort in their sorrow that you are not physically present. Help them to feel you in the whispering wind touching their cheeks and the sun warming their faces and the rain washing away their tears.

Submitted by Kevin Gerrish NIEHS (not verified) on Thu, 07/01/2021 - 14:14

I was deeply saddened when I read this today. I met George in 1993 when we were graduate students. We were partners in a lab class and I immediately felt a kinship with George due to our love of similar music and his overall mellow demeanor. We ended up in the same department and our labs were right down the hall from one another. I spent many hours with George in the lab and socially over the time we were at Vanderbilt. Importantly, we remained friends over the years and checked in often (though not often enough) and I know that he was very happy with his work and family life. I shed a tear today because this stunned me but also smiled because I remember all of the fun I had with George and have some great stories to share in the future. The world was a better place because of George and we lost a great human being. My condolences to his family.

Submitted by Richard Leapman (not verified) on Wed, 07/07/2021 - 11:11

George was the nicest, warmest, and friendliest of colleagues anyone could hope to have. I was privileged to help recruit George into NIBIB twelve years ago to set up his own independent research group. I remember being elated when George accepted the position, and I have been grateful to him ever since for his amazing scientific accomplishments, for the exemplary way in which he ran his lab (including his creation of a highly diverse group), for his calmness in overcoming hurdles without complaint, and for his wonderful sense of humor. While George was a brilliant scientist, he was also one of the most modest and humble researchers whom I’ve ever encountered at the NIH. Above all, George was immensely proud of his family, Susanne, Isabella and Max, who were by far the most important part of his life. Thanks to George’s positive influence on everyone around him, he left this world as an immeasurably better place than he found it. My deepest condolences to all of George’s family.

Submitted by Jerome (Jerry)… (not verified) on Fri, 07/09/2021 - 13:15

There was a group of us who knew George non-professionally. We met when he first showed up at the NIH Fitness Center where he was lifting prodigious weights on the leg machine. He comfortably joined in with us as we met monthly to either watch a boxing match on TV (Tyson, etc), a good movie (Apocalypse Now, etc), or spend an evening playing low-stakes poker. George always brought beer and his cheerful good nature. Those were very pleasant evenings, and despite all the NIH scientists in the room, the banter was light, funny, and rarely scientific. As people moved on to other positions and cities, the group dissolved, except for a yearly meet-up over dinner at a Bethesda restaurant. George was a valuable contributor to those occasions, and we will miss him greatly at our next reunion. We'll order an extra beer for you, old buddy.