In Memoriam: Nelson Fausto, M.D.


On April 2, 2012, Nelson Fausto, Professor and former Chairman of the Department of Pathology at Washington University School of Medicine, died at the age of 75. During his long struggle with multiple myeloma, he sustained professional and personal activities with characteristics that, throughout his professional life, spawned appreciation, admiration, and friendship from hundreds of colleagues, students and trainees worldwide. A masterful teacher, talented researcher, and caring mentor, Nelson was a role model for young investigators and a leader in advancing knowledge regarding hepatic biology and pathobiology. Nelson was a kindly, intellectual, and emotional giant—a renaissance man who combined the joys of life and work and who profoundly influenced the lives of those with whom he interacted.

Like his parents, Nelson was an immigrant, which profoundly influenced his experience, achievements, and humanity. He was born in São Paulo, Brazil, where his parents married after his mother had left Turkey and his father had left the Austro-Hungarian empire to escape pogroms and seek a better life. After the death of his mother when Nelson was an infant, his family struggled to sustain themselves economically and intellectually. Nelson's brothers became distinguished: Boris as a historian and Ruy as a philosopher. Nelson's interest in medicine resulted in an M.D. from the University of São Paulo where, following residency training, he became a faculty member. In 1962, he went to the McCardle Laboratory at the University of Wisconsin for 2 years of postdoctoral training in liver regeneration; however, political upheaval in Brazil changed his life. With family members threatened or fleeing for their lives and with his history of political activism, Nelson remained in the United States and acquired citizenship. Like his parents, he escaped repression and persecution in search of self, freedom, adventure, and growth.

In 1967, the leaders of a new medical school at Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island, were prescient in recruiting Nelson as an Assistant Professor of Medical Science, a position he held until 1994. During his tenure at Brown University, Nelson manifested great skills in leadership in teaching, research, administration, and human relationships. His research program in liver regeneration thrived and, with the advent of molecular biology, Nelson was one of the first to use molecular techniques to study regeneration, cancer, and hepatocellular biology. He became Professor of Pathology and founding Chair of the Department of Pathology and Laboratory Medicine, in which capacity he organized and directed the General Pathology course. During the following 11 years, hundreds of students selected him for teaching awards annually. In 1994, he was recruited to the University of Washington Medical School as Chairman of the Department of Pathology. Under his leadership, the Department was spectacularly successful in research and teaching, and became a leading center in modern pathology.

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Research remained his intellectual pursuit, and Nelson and his colleagues made major contributions in understanding liver regeneration, lineage development, and transformation. Nelson was an academic trailblazer. With colleagues and students, he expanded the field of liver research at a critical time when, in contrast to other areas of medical research, molecular biology still had only a limited impact on liver biology and disease. Nelson encouraged his colleagues to entire this brave new world and tackle long-standing difficult problems in liver biology and disease.

Nelson was a leader in academic pathology, a field in which he served as author, spokesman, and innovator. He was President of the American Society of Investigative Pathology (ASIP), and from 1992 to 2001 he served as Editor-in-Chief of The American Journal of Pathology. In 2010, in recognition of his seminal contributions and as “an individual who represents the highest ideals in pathology and medicine,” he received the Gold-Headed Cane award from the ASIP, the highest honor offered by that organization.

Many international awards followed. Among his most cherished was the Spinoza Chair (University of Amsterdam, The Netherlands, 2000), the Distinguished Scientist Award from the American Liver Foundation (2004), the Distinguished Achievement Award from the American Association for the Study of Liver Disease (2009), the Arnaldo Vieira de Carvalho Medal from the University of São Paulo (2009), and the Distinguished Service Award from the Association of Pathology Chairs (2012).

Nelson's influence in pathology and, in particular, liver pathobiology was profound and global. He co-edited the books Robbins and Kumar: The Pathologic Basis of Disease and The Liver: Biology and Pathobiology. Through editorials, reviews, books, lectures, and over 250 peer-reviewed articles, he disseminated his knowledge to an unlimited number of researchers. He influenced several generations of physicians and scientists, including 31 postdoctoral fellows who began their academic careers in his laboratory, 22 graduate students who received their Ph.D. under his mentorship, and innumerable colleagues worldwide who benefitted from his knowledge and willingness to share. Extensive travel to lecture at scientific meetings and educational events provided a format for exchange of ideas with all who were interested. Because of his patient style, frequent traveling, and willingness to learn about all aspects of life, conversations with Nelson were memorable and ranged widely to include science, politics, art, and culture. An avid reader in a wide range of topics, Nelson enjoyed discussing and sharing books that excited his intellect.

In addition to mentorship, writing, and teaching, Nelson shared his knowledge and experience in other venues, which also reflected his sense of responsibility to the scientific community. For many years, he served on Study Sections and Advisory Councils for the National Institutes of Health, national and international committees that embraced a range of activities, and as an effective reviewer and editor of professional journals, including HEPATOLOGY.

A scholar of many languages and cultures, Nelson bridged these disciplines and lived by the principles he learned from life. Although interested in all cultures, he and his wife, Ann DeLancey, were particularly involved in his home region of the Pacific Northwest. Appreciative of the cultural contributions of the Native American population and aware of the painful shortcomings of reservation life, Nelson and Ann brought Native American middle school children to visit the University of Washington and contributed to medical scholarships for students from Native American tribes. In a symposium held in his honor several months before his death, Native American representatives poignantly praised Nelson's philanthropy, leadership, and concern.

Physician, scientist, humanist, and friend, Nelson Fausto's contributions will long influence our lives, even those who did not have the privilege of knowing him personally. He was a giant who was modest about his accomplishments. Nelson enjoyed life to the fullest. A caring, sensitive man, he described his capacity to love by saying that “all the other stuff does not matter.” Because I believe he would approve, I have included a favorite photograph of Nelson and Ann in happier days.