Former Democratic senator Claiborne Pell, who championed the Pell grant program for college students, died Thursday at his Newport, Rhode Island home after a long battle with Parkinson’s disease, US media said. He was 90.

Pell served as Rhode Island senator from 1961 until his retirement in 1997, two years after he announced he had contracted the debilitating disease.

Pell was chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee from 1987 to 1994 and was named US delegate to the United Nations shortly before he retired.

Vice president-elect Joseph Biden mourned the loss of Pell, whom he called "one of our country’s greatest public servants … a man of extraordinary integrity, grace and decency."

He praised the late senator as a major US foreign policy voice and "a leader in the effort to reduce the size of the world’s nuclear arsenal and to stop the spread of nuclear weapons."

"Few senators have done more to expand opportunity in America," Biden said in a statement, adding that thanks to Pell "the doors of college have been opened to millions of Americans."

"That is a legacy that will live on for generations to come."

Pell, who was born in New York City on November 22, 1918, is survived by his wife, two children, five grandchildren and five great-grandchildren, CNN reported.