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ALFRED GOODMAN GILMAN, M.D., Ph.D.
Born: July 1, 1941
Alfred G. Gilman was born in New Haven, son of Alfred Z. Gilman (B.S. 1928, Ph.D. 1931) and Mable Schmidt Gilman. Al prepared for Yale at The Taft School. His father was a renowned pharmacologist at Yale. Al traced his interest in science and medicine to his visits to his father's Yale laboratory at age 10. As well-respected as his father was, Al achieved, as a doctor and a scientist, world-wide acclaim far exceeding that of his father with the award of the Nobel Prize in Physiology and Medicine in 1994, one of two Nobel Laureates in our class.
At Yale Al was a member of Pierson College and played on its football team and on its concert band. He was an Honors Major in Biochemistry and a ranking scholar. He earned his M.D. and Ph.D. in pharmacology in a combined program at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland in 1969. He then pursed post-graduate work in the Laboratory of Biochemical Genetics at the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Maryland, 1969-1971.
From 1971 to 1981 Al was professor of pharmacology at University of Virginia and was director of its medical-scientific training program.
It was at Virginia in the 1970s that Al isolated and named the G-protein in molecules which allows chemical signals to be transmitted to the interior of cells and advanced the understanding of cancer, diabetes and other diseases, work which subsequently earned him the Nobel Prize. Al's work, as explained for the lay person in the New York Times, resulted from his interest in finding out exactly how chemical signals are transmitted from the outside to the inside of a cell, a process known as transduction:
"Leukemia cells, he found, do not respond to external signals sent by hormones. He and his research team identified a protein lost during mutation as the cause of this loss of function. They then located a protein in normal cells that, when put into the membrane of a leukemia cell, restored the damaged protein's ability to act as a transducer. This made it possible for the information contained in an exterior chemical signal to be translated into a second signal that the cell could understand. In 1980 he isolated the molecule that accomplished the translation. He called it a G-protein because it binds with guanosine triphosphate or GTP.
A concise but considerably more technical description of his discovery of the G-protein and his follow up research may be found in the Journal of Science, February 5, 2016, vol. 351, issue 6273, p. 566. His Nobel lecture can be viewed at www.nobelprize.org.
When notified of his Nobel Prize, Al told the Times in 1994, "First I activated my receptor, then my G-protein. I was obviously extremely excited. I think I secreted all the adrenaline I had."
From 1981 until his retirement in 2009 Al was chair of the pharmacology department at the University of Texas Southwestern in Dallas. He continued his research on cells while building a world class department and teaching medical students. In addition, he also served terms as Dean of the Medical School and Provost of the Medical Center. He was a very popular instructor with his students and the recipient of numerous academic awards.
Al was elected to the National Academy of Science in 1985 and as a fellow of the Association for Cancer Research in 2009. He received the prestigious Albert Lasker Medical Research Award in 1989, and Taft's highest award to an alumnus, the Citation of Merit, in 2003. He was also founding scientist of Regeneron Pharmaceuticals and a member of the board of directors of Eli Lilly & Co., for many years.
In a tribute to Al published in Pharmacology Magazine his former colleague T. K. Hayden, Ph.D., recalled an oft-repeated joke of Al's - that he was named for a textbook. It was, in fact, true. His middle name Goodman was chosen in honor of his father's co-editor of the leading textbook on pharmacology. Al himself went on to assume the editorship over 25 years of the same publication, "The Pharmacological Basis of Therapeutics," which Dr. Hayden described as "the now gargantuan textbook."
After his retirement he served for 3 years as chief scientific officer for the Cancer Prevention and Research Institute of Texas. Under his leadership the agency invested $500 million in cancer research projects and attracted almost 40 research scholars to Texas. In 2012, however, he resigned in protest when the agency began to make grants influenced by political and commercial interests without scientific review. Al's freshman roommate George Grumbach, who spoke with him at that time, recalled that, "it would have been easy for Al to walk away but he stood firm for his principles and against political favoritism versus science. ... The point of this," George said, "was that Al was not only a brilliant scientist but also and equally a person of principle and integrity, regardless of the personal cost."
In 1963 Al married the former Kathryn Hedlund, who survives him. For many years she taught academic language therapy. They have 3 children: 2 daughters, Amy Ariagno, Anne Sinovec, and 1 son, Edward. He and Kathryn have 5 grandchildren, Sydney Ariagno, Carson Ariagno, Julie Sinovec, Andrew Sinovec, and Teddy Gilman.
"Yes, Al spent lots of time in the laboratory," Kathryn reported, "but he had many other passions as well." He loved classical music and was a supporter of the Dallas Symphony. He was also an avid sports fan, loyally rooting for the Cowboys, the Mavericks, and the Rangers. After his retirement, she said, he took up golf, mixing enjoyment and enthusiasm with frustration.
The words of his former colleague Dr. Hayden provide an insightful portrait of Al Gilman and a fitting epitaph.
"His potent intellect was complemented by a sharp wit, a wonderful sense of humor and an unsurpassable integrity. He selflessly mentored hundreds from all walks of biomedical science. His research goals, ambition, and technologies were at the front of the field for three decades and his scientific influence continues to expand through the scores of scientists who trained in his laboratory over the years as they spread across the globe."
Our distinguished classmate had a life well lived; mankind, science and his family were well served.