Stanley J. Korsmeyer

By Nathan, David G. | Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society, June 2007 | Go to article overview

Stanley J. Korsmeyer


Nathan, David G., Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society


8 JUNE 1950 * 31 MARCH 2005

STANLEY J. KORSMEYER, M.D., a nonsmoker and vigorous man in perfect health, died of a ravaging lung cancer at the age of fifty-four on 31 March 2005. The loss of Dr. Korsmeyer in the prime of his career is a tragedy for his family and for all of academic medicine.

Stan, as he liked to be called, was born in Beardstown, Illinois, the son of Willard and Carnella Korsmeyer, who operated a family livestock farm. A hard worker from childhood, he showed the grand champion pair of hogs at the Illinois State Fair at the age of fourteen. He received the Governor's Trophy as his first piece of "hardware." There were many more to come.

As a high-school student, he was interested in veterinary medicine, but at the University of Illinois, an astute veterinarian persuaded him to enter medical school. There he was guided into hematology/oncology by the late Paul Heller, M.D., the latter a refugee from the Nazis who became chief of hematology at the university. From Illinois, where he was a top student, Stan went on to become an intern and resident in medicine at the University of California, San Francisco, where the then chair of the department, Holly Smith, M.D., considered him to be one of the best residents he had ever known.

Following his residency, Stan began his investigative career in earnest. He became a research fellow at the National Institutes of Health, where he worked closely with Phillip Leder, M.D., and Thomas WaIdman, M.D. There in the 1980s he burst on the biomédical research scene with his discovery that a form of murine lymphoma was due to a mutation that abrogates apoptosis. The mutated gene called BCL-2 became the first discovered gene in a large family that prevents or encourages cells to enter the apoptotic death pathway. Analogues of these genes also control the development of organs and limbs. Korsmeyer's seminal contribution and his follow-up discoveries changed our view of the pathophysiology of cancer. "The recognition of apoptosis' primary role in cancer was a major insight that profoundly affected how we thought about cell death and survival," said Douglas Green of the University of California, San Diego.

For his trailblazing research Stan was elected to the American Philosophical Society, the National Academy of Sciences, and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. His many honors included the BristolMeyers Squibb Award for Distinguished Achievement in Cancer Research, the General Motors Mott Award, the first Wiley Foundation Prize in Biomedical Science, the Pezcoller Foundation-AACR International Award, the Louisa Gross Horovitz Prize of Columbia University, and, as an example of his citizenship, the Harvard Mentoring Award.

Stan left NIH to join the faculty at Washington University in St. Louis, where he rose to become director of the Division of Medical Oncology and professor of medicine. For the past nineteen years he was an investigator of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute.

"He was everybody's hero-as a scientist and as a human being," said Robert Horvitz of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, an eminent scientist, Nobel laureate, and close friend. …

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