The 2005 recipient of the AASLD Distinguished Service Award is Dr. Leonard B. Seeff, Special Expert for Liver Disease for the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases of the National Institutes of Health (NIH). Leonard is a long-standing member of the AASLD and is well known by its membership for his contributions to hepatology and his service to the Association. Few members have been more deserving of this recognition.
Born in Johannesburg, South Africa, Leonard spent his formative years in that city in a close-knit and warm family that included his father, Harry, a beloved and respected family physician; his mother, Hanny; and his brother, Norman, now a world-famous photographer in Los Angeles. After completing high school, Leonard went on to higher education and medical training at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg.
Growing up in South Africa in the 1940s and 1950s, Leonard was a witness to the beauty of his country but also to its social injustices. As a student and then a medical intern and resident at the world-famous Baragwanath Hospital in Soweto, he received an excellent education in medicine as well as an intimate view of the tragic effects of apartheid. He and his family, believing that they could not work (and benefit) from a system based on such injustice, decided to emigrate to the United States.
After his residency, Leonard applied for postdoctoral medical training in the United States. The most promising offer came from a professor and chief of medicine at Mount Sinai Hospital in Chicago, who wrote: “If you would be interested in the study of liver disease, we have a place for you.” These prophetic words were from Hyman J. Zimmerman, a seminal figure in the emerging discipline of hepatology. With his young family, Leonard arrived in Chicago in November 1964 and began a residency in internal medicine followed by a fellowship in gastroenterology at Mount Sinai Hospital. During his “Chicago and early Washington, DC years,” his family grew to three children, Amanda (currently Director of Professional Relations at Forest Laboratories in New York City), Laura (now an expert on epidemiology of colon cancer at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention), and Daniel (a jazz musician and the West Coast Director of the Thelonius Monk Jazz Foundation). Also during these years, Leonard was introduced to the field of liver disease research, forming a lifelong bond with his mentor and teacher, Hy Zimmerman, and a close association with Kamal Ishak of the Armed Forces Institute of Pathology. He entered the field in the midst of an explosion of knowledge about liver disease, and his own contributions helped in its detonation.
In 1965, Leonard left Chicago with Hy Zimmerman to start a 30-year career in the VA medical system, serving in positions at the Boston (1968-1971) and Washington, DC (1967-1968, 1971-1998) VA Medical Centers. He worked with Hy on issues of hepatotoxicity and the use of serum enzymes and newly described virological markers (the Australia antigen, and later serological markers for hepatitis B, C, and D) in the diagnosis of liver disease, particularly viral hepatitis. Beginning in the late 1960s, Leonard—with the help of the biostatistician Dr. Elizabeth (Libby) Wright—initiated, organized, and served as principal investigator of a series of landmark VA Cooperative Studies on viral hepatitis. These studies defined the incidence of transfusion-associated viral hepatitis and the relative efficacies of immune serum and hepatitis B immune globulin in preventing hepatitis after needlestick accidents and blood transfusions. They also showed that the majority of posttransfusion hepatitis was neither hepatitis B nor hepatitis A and helped to define the clinical course and natural history of this third form of viral hepatitis. Samples from these studies were used in the first demonstration of infectivity of hepatitis C in chimpanzees, and subsequent analyses helped define the serology and natural history of hepatitis B, C, and D. In follow-up studies (aided by the devoted and reliable Zelma Buskell) of patients from these VA Cooperative Trials and military cohorts from World War II and the Korean War, Leonard Seeff has accomplished more than perhaps any other individual in defining the natural history of hepatitis C and its long-term consequences.
In 1998, Leonard joined the NIH as a special expert and advisor in liver disease for the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases. In this role, he has helped initiate and supervise prospective multicenter studies on hepatitis C, nonalcoholic steatohepatitis, liver transplantation, and drug-induced liver disease. He was instrumental in the decision to hold the first NIH Consensus Development Conference on Management of Hepatitis C in 1997 and was the principal organizer of the second in 2002. He has led NIH initiatives on hepatocellular carcinoma and drug-induced liver disease and helped to develop the first trans-NIH Action Plan for Liver Disease Research.
From the beginning of his career, Leonard Seeff has been closely associated with the AASLD and its mission to advance knowledge and promote excellence in liver disease research. He attended his first annual AASLD meeting in 1964, when it was a small, 2-day get-together at the Drake Hotel in Chicago, and he has not missed an annual meeting since. He has served on many AASLD committees, including Training and Education, Nominations, and Practice Guidelines, and on the AASLD Governing Board as a Councilor-at-Large from 1997-2000. He has presented at more than 10 AASLD postgraduate courses and countless meet-the-professor luncheons, early morning breakfasts, and single-topic conferences. In 1995, he was the first Leon Schiff Memorial Lecturer. Few of our members have not benefited in some way from his expertise and his excellence in teaching.
AASLD members who have worked with Leonard Seeff need not be reminded of his character and abilities. He has dedicated students, including myself, who vouch for his qualities strongly. He is a devoted family man who is proud of his three children, five grandchildren, and spouse, Dr. Lynn Gerber, who is Chief of the Department of Rehabilitation at the NIH Clinical Center. His passions outside of hepatology include classical music, fountain pens, and cricket. Regarding his character, he shares all of the qualities of his mentor, Hy Zimmerman: a personal commitment to research in liver disease, a critical ability in clinical medicine, a kindness and generosity of spirit, and an unmitigated objectivity and integrity in his work, teaching, and writing. At a time when the Association is faced with so many potential financial and commercial conflicts of interest, Leonard Seeff has stood out as a voice of objectivity and balance unaffected by financial pressures or self-interest. In this and in so many other regards, Leonard Seeff has provided an invaluable and distinguished service to the AASLD. 1