University News

Emeritus Professor Edward Westhead Dies at Age 90

Distinguished biochemist Edward W. Westhead, emeritus professor of the biochemistry and molecular biology department at UMass Amherst, succumbed to cancer on June 1, 2021 at the age of 90.

NEWS Ed Westhead
Edward W. Westhead

Westhead had a passion for learning and broad interests. After receiving his B.S. and M.S. degrees in chemistry from Haverford College, and his Ph.D. in polymer science from the Polytechnic Institute of Brooklyn, he continued on to do postdoctoral research in protein biochemistry and enzyme catalysis at the University of Uppsala and University of Minnesota, respectively. He then established his own laboratory at Dartmouth Medical School in 1960.

UMass Amherst recruited Westhead in 1966 to form a new department of biochemistry. He later became the first director of the UMass Amherst molecular and cellular biology PhD program in 1988. Over the decades, he also held visiting professorship positions at various institutions, including California Institute of Technology, Oxford University, University of Innsbruck and the University of Milan.

Westhead’s research focused on enzyme biochemistry and neurobiology. He worked to discover the structure and function relationships of the enzyme enolase, which plays a role in energy metabolism, and he studied the activity of chromaffin cells, known for their role in the fight-or-flight response, to determine the mechanisms of cell loading and secretion. His findings were widely published.

“I feel fortunate to have overlapped with Ed for a few years prior to his retirement,” says Jennifer Normanly, professor and department head. “Ed graciously downsized his lab space to make room for my research program, and he was a great source of wisdom and perspective for me as a new assistant professor.”

Over the years, Westhead served on numerous professional organizations. He continued to follow developments in his field even after retirement and made it a point to stay connected with former students his entire life.

While clearly passionate about his work, Westhead had many interests outside the lab. He loved good food and wine, and would venture many miles for a delicious loaf of bread or a dish of homemade ice cream. He was a great traveler, and knew people almost everywhere he went.

Italy held a special place in his heart — with his wife, Evelyn A. Villa, he enjoyed exploring its history and culture. He also was an avid outdoorsman, hiking, biking, playing tennis, and skiing up until the last months of his life. 

Westhead is survived by his beloved wife of 24 years, Evelyn A. Villa, MD; his daughter, Victoria Westhead; his son, Edward G. Westhead; grandchildren Abby and Nat Levy-Westhead; two sisters, Barbara Lawler and Eileen Hall; numerous nieces and nephews; as well as six stepchildren — Liz Diton, Janet Vanoni, Karen Shailor, Mariella Villa, Arthur Villa, and Jason Villa — and their children and grandchildren.

A celebration of Westhead's life will be planned for 2022. Contact or if you wish to be notified of the date.