Jay Donald Ostrow: The yellow giant


  • Potential conflict of interest: Nothing to report.

Jay Donald Ostrow (Fig. 1) suddenly and unexpectedly passed away on January 9, 2013 at the age of 83. Don was born in New York, NY on January 1, 1930.

Figure 1.

Jay Donald Ostrow, 1930-2013.

Don obtained his BS in Chemistry at Yale in 1950 and his MD degree at Harvard 4 years later. He then went to the University College in London in 1969-1970 where he obtained the title of Magister Scientiae in Biochemistry in 1970 under the tutelage of Barbara Billing. His postgraduate training exposed him to the best of medical training, moving from Johns Hopkins to Harvard Medical School where he became chief research fellow in the laboratory directed by Rudi Schmid, one of the fathers of modern bilirubin science. These two pioneers of the “yellow science” provided the fatal attraction for a lifelong study of the mysterious pigment causing jaundice, a sign linked to liver disease by Hippocrates more than 2,000 years ago.

His successful academic career started at Harvard Medical School in 1961 and proceeded until becoming Professor of Medicine at Northwestern University Medical School, Chicago, IL. After retirement in 1995, he spent 3 years in Amsterdam, NL to then move to Seattle to be appointed Affiliated Professor of Medicine at the University of Washington where he was actively involved in research and preparing teaching material for a highly appreciated GE course. Dr. Ostrow served as president of the American Association for the Study of Liver Diseases in 1986-1987.

Don Ostrow has been and will remain a giant in the field of bilirubin and jaundice. He was among the few persons who understood back in the 1960s the importance and the pivotal role of the yellow pigment until then considered only as a waste product. Due to his unmatched scientific curiosity, Don realized that bilirubin might have important biological functions crucial to several metabolic pathways. Almost all of these theories have been proven correct as more advanced experimental techniques became available. Taking advantage of his scientific background in both chemistry and medicine, Don combined this dual physical chemical and clinical approach to the study of bilirubin. His unique discoveries made Don one of the first real translational researchers in hepatology. The determination of the solubility of bilirubin in aqueous media, the binding constants to albumin, and their role in the metabolic and toxic effects of the pigment shed totally new light on bilirubin neurotoxicity in the newborn and paved the way to more sophisticated investigations aimed at understanding the molecular events associated with the neurotoxicity and therefore its prevention. His contributions to the chemical and biological characteristics of bilirubin will remain landmarks for anyone involved in the study of the pigment, either in the experimental or clinical arena.

The translational approach in medicine, rather new back in 1960s and 1970s, made his laboratory the place to be for young fellows to be trained and share front-row studies of the correlation between the chemical structure and the biological behavior of bilirubin and bile acids.

Anyone who had the privilege to work with Don admired his analytic mind, his ability to interpret experimental data, to criticize experimental flaws, and to put new observations in perspective. This was particularly true when Don discussed science with young investigators—a tough mentor who could issue sharp critiques but at the same time precious suggestions and encouragement to continue what she/he was doing. The ability to grasp the critical points after a complicated presentation of sophisticated molecular biology data was remarkable. This attitude was particularly evident during our yearly gathering of the “Five Yellow Knights” when, during a 1-day marathon of freewheeling brain-storming, new ideas to unravel unsolved mysteries of bilirubin chemistry, transport, and toxicity led to several new avenues in bilirubin research.

Don trained several young researchers interested in the complicated field of bilirubin and related compounds. He was a tireless traveler and scientist, able to discuss science for more than 8 hours and then tour the city or attend a theater performance. Testimony to his international esteem were the 2 years spent in Freiburg, Germany in 1989-1990 as Senior Distinguished von Humbolt Awardee, 3 years (1995-1998) as visiting professor at the Academic Medical Center in Amsterdam, and the several periods he spent at the Liver Research Center in Trieste, Italy.

Don was a sharp, witty, and incisive writer, able to summarize in a few clear sentences the most difficult concept. Having a paper criticized and edited by Don was a viaticum for probable acceptance in the most demanding journals. He was what we in the lab used to call “the living bilirubin PubMed.” His incredible memory was used not only to quote references dating back to the 1950s or before, but to dissect their flaws and meaning, and most of all humble us to realize that what we think is new in science has often already been described. This recollection of the past helped Don to contribute several original and review papers that have been milestones in the yellow field of bilirubin.1-3

Don will be missed greatly, but he will be with us every day when we discuss our methods and results and try to emulate the rigid, consequential, creative, positive attitude he always displayed. Thanks Don for all that you inspired in us.

Claudio Tiribelli Professor of Medicine*, Libor Vitek Professor of Medicine†, Richard P. Wennberg Professor of Medicine‡, * Liver Research Center Italian Liver Foundation University of Trieste Trieste, Italy, † 1st Faculty of Medicíne Charles University in Prague Prague, Czech Republic, ‡ Department of Pediatrics University of California Davis, Davis, CA.