Physics professor dies of cancer

A beloved professor and former chair of the physics department, Dr. Cornelius Bennhold, passed away Wednesday evening after a 17-year-long battle with lung cancer. He was 48.

Bennhold taught at GW for more than 17 years and was revered by many of his students and colleagues, who said his love for learning and teaching was present in all he did at the University.

“Physics is a subject that can be very frustrating,” said Chandula Seneviratne, a senior who took Bennhold’s class this year. “You can put a lot of work into it and it still won’t translate to grades. Professor Bennhold understood that, and if you went to office hours he would acknowledge your work and encourage you.”

His wife, Laurette, said Bennhold took pleasure in teaching and watching his students learn.

“He loved science, he loved teaching and he loved helping people get excited about learning,” she said. “He was a physics professor but an educator at heart.”

Barry Berman, current chair of the physics department, said Bennhold was an inspirational professor and a renowned scholar in the field of theoretical nuclear physics.

“He was a fine scholar, but even more than his scholarship and the mechanics of his teaching, his humanity showed through,” Berman said. “That was a common theme of all the people who knew him.”

Berman said Bennhold had an affinity for getting students excited about physics by helping them understand complicated topics and instilling in them a genuine appreciation for the subject.

“We feel that this loss is very great,” Berman said. “It will be hard for anyone to step into his shoes. He was truly unique.”

Laurette Bennhold said when her husband was too sick to attend classes, students would visit him in the hospital. There, Bennhold would help his students with papers and answer questions they had. Some students, she said, would come by his hospital bed just to brighten his spirits.

Graduate student Raluca Teodorescu said that over the past five years she worked closely with Bennhold on a research project.

“We, his students, were often touched by his high standards of professionalism and his kindness. He always took time to listen to us and strived to address our concerns,” Teodorescu said in an e-mail. “He often encouraged students to follow their professional dreams. He was, is and…will always be part of mine. With tears in my eyes and a broken heart, I can hardly imagine that he will no longer be in his office when I’ll need … advice.”

Laurette Bennhold said her husband would want students to remember his passion for scholarship and education.

“You have to have a vision, you have to be able to dare to dream that vision and to be able to communicate that vision and that’s what he has done in the last few years in the physics department,” she said. “If that legacy can continue that’s what would be important, that’s what he would want.”

Bennhold is survived by his wife, his 10-year-old daughter Catalina and his mother.

A service for Bennhold will be held Monday, April 27 at 2 p.m. at the Our Lady Queen of Peace church in Arlington, Va.

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