Richard Courtney dies after battle with esophageal cancer

April 19, 2018

Dr. Richard Courtney, former chair of the Department of Microbiology and Immunology, distinguished educator and professor emeritus at Penn State College of Medicine, died Wednesday, April 11, following a brief battle with esophageal cancer.

Courtney was a highly esteemed and cherished leader, investigator and teacher. He was recruited to the College of Medicine in 1991 as professor and chair, and retired in early 2012, touching so many lives during his 20 years here.

Colleagues described him as a generous and self-effacing man who, through his gentle demeanor, wise counsel and unwavering commitment to science and education, became a mentor to students and associates alike.

Prior to his arrival in Hershey, Courtney was professor and chair of the Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology at Louisiana State University School of Medicine for six years, and was an associated professor at the University of Tennessee, Baylor College of Medicine. A virologist, he was most well-known for studying the herpes simplex virus, particularly the proteins found on the outside of the virus.

“When he started, no one knew much about the proteins on the outside of the virus – how big they were, how many they were. He was one of the first people to start asking questions,” said Dr. John Wills, professor of microbiology and immunology, and one of Courtney’s research collaborators. It was important to study what’s on the surface of the virus, Wills said, because these proteins are needed for the virus to infect and spread among cells and until scientists understand what’s there and how it works, they cannot form a strategy to defeat it.

He was perhaps most admired for his dedication to students. As word of his death spread through the College of Medicine last Thursday, one of the comments heard most often was how Courtney took time to educate and encourage students.

“I remember when graduate students were struggling with writing their dissertation thesis because it seemed too big a task to complete,” said Dr. Leslie Parent, vice dean for research and graduate studies. “He would tell them, ‘You don’t have to climb the mountain all at once. Just climb one step at a time, and step after step, you will get over that mountain.’ To encourage them, he would meet with them personally to help them through that journey.”

He was named a Penn State College of Medicine Distinguished Educator in 2009, and prior to that, was recognized by our medical students with their teaching awards seven times.  The Department of Microbiology and Immunology created a student scholarship in his name.

Courtney is survived by his wife, Diana; daughters, Sheryl and Lisa; two sons-in-law; four grandchildren; and a sister. A celebration of his life will be held at 2 p.m. Friday, April 27, at Hoover Hunger Home, 88 Lucy Ave., Hershey.

  • Richard Courtney poses in a dark suit, against a blue, lightly textured backdrop.
    IMAGE: Penn State

(Media Contacts)

Last Updated April 19, 2018