Obituary: Velvl Green, professor, scientist and seeker

  • Article by: PAT PHEIFER , Star Tribune
  • Updated: November 26, 2011 - 6:07 PM

Professor Velvl Greene

Velvl Greene, a former University of Minnesota professor and NASA scientist who was a pioneer in the field of hygiene and the development of sanitary standards used in hospitals, died Monday in Israel, where he had lived since the 1980s. He was 83.

Greene, formerly of the Twin Cities, joined NASA's Planetary Quarantine Division in 1960, where from a lab in Minneapolis, he contributed to the search for life on Mars. As he aged, Greene embraced the Chabad-Lubavitch movement of Judaism and not only reconciled his beliefs in science and religion but in later life often lectured on the Torah and its compatibility with science.

A native of Winnipeg, Greene came to Minneapolis to study for a doctorate in food science at the University of Minnesota. In 1956, he and his wife, Gail, moved to Louisiana, where he taught at the Southwestern Louisiana Institute in Lafayette.

When a staphylococcus outbreak struck the southern United States, Greene was called upon by public health officials to help curtail the epidemic.

"Staph infections were almost a thing of the past," Greene recalled in an interview decades later. "After the development of penicillin, most infections could be wiped out with an injection. But then the bacteria began to be resistant to penicillin. Infectious diseases of all kinds were taking a toll; babies [and] surgical patients were dying."

Greene pushed for the re-adoption of classic hygiene practices: "Wash your hands, wear gowns, isolate patients," he recalled.

Following the trail of infection north, Greene rejoined the University of Minnesota and created the first university course in environmental microbiology. That attracted the attention of NASA officials, who feared that spacecraft might be contaminated by extraterrestrial microbes.

He and his family moved to Israel in 1983, where he taught at Ben-Gurion University until two years ago, when he resigned to lecture and work on his autobiography.

Early in his career, Greene referred to himself as a Jewish agnostic. But in the mid-1960s, he yearned to learn more about Jewish teachings and to reconcile his beliefs in science with those of religion. He began what would become a lifelong conversation, both in person and by letter, with Rabbi Menachem Schneerson, the rebbe, or religious leader, of the Chabad-Lubavitch movement.

According to a Time magazine article in 1972, Greene "gradually became a fully observant Lubavitcher." Greene, however, saw it differently.

"When people ask me how I became an observant Jew," he said, "I tell them that I'll drop them a line when I become one. I'm still a work in progress."

Greene summed up his outlook with a simple observation, according to an obituary published at Chabad.org: "Science teaches you how the heavens move. The Torah teaches you how to move the heavens."

Greene is survived by his wife, Gail; sons Rabbi Dovid Greene, director of Chabad-Lubavitch in Rochester, and Rabbi Shmuel Greene; daughters Rochel Black, Penina Seidel, and Nechama Kahana, and many grandchildren and great-grandchildren.

Services were held in Be'er Sheva, Israel. Plans for a memorial observance in Minnesota are incomplete.

Pat Pheifer • 612-673-7252

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