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Alan M. Gewirtz, 1949–2010: Per aspera ad astra
Article first published online: 19 APR 2011
Copyright © 2011 AlphaMed Press
Volume 29, Issue 5, page 743, May 2011
How to Cite
Ratajczak, M. Z. (2011), Alan M. Gewirtz, 1949–2010: Per aspera ad astra. STEM CELLS, 29: 743. doi: 10.1002/stem.638
- Issue published online: 19 APR 2011
- Article first published online: 19 APR 2011
- Accepted manuscript online: 6 APR 2011 02:25PM EST
- Manuscript Accepted: 15 MAR 2011
- Manuscript Received: 10 MAR 2011
I have been asked by Editors of our journal to write this obituary as tribute to Dr. Alan M. Gewirtz, long-time Associate Editor of Stem Cells and beloved colleague and mentor to many of us, who died on November 17, 2010 at the age of 61. Having devoted his life to the understanding of cancer and the devising of new therapeutic weapons based on use of antisense RNA technologies against this terrible disease, Alan himself ultimately succumbed to lung cancer.
“Per aspera ad astra”—“through hardships to the stars”—I took on purpose this old ancient roman phrase as a title for this editorial tribute. Alan's struggle to reach for the stars began half a century ago. As the son of a physician, Alan grew up on Staten Island, New York, and reportedly never realized that there were stars to see with own eyes in the night sky until after receiving his first pair of glasses as a young boy. This horizon-broadening event may or may not have been the actual propellant behind his ambition, but he did go on to become a devoted medical doctor, an outstanding scientist, an airplane pilot, and to have his low-gravity stem cell experiments performed in outer space—close to the stars.
Alan received his undergraduate degree from Colgate University, graduated from SUNY Buffalo Medical College, completed his medical residency at The Mount Sinai Hospital in New York, and went to Yale University for clinical training in hematology and oncology. While at Yale, he worked with Dr. Ronald Hoffman and Dr. Edward Benz to make seminal contributions to the field of megakaryocyte developmental biology. The next steps and extraordinary scientific accomplishments in his successful scientific carrier as independent researcher first at Temple University and then at the University of Pennsylvania gave him deservedly well recognized international recognition.
As his research associate at the University of Pennsylvania, I saw first-hand, what it took to be Alan Gewirtz. Every day he would arrive early to the lab, have only a quick microwave-heated bowl of soup for lunch, and then continue working until late at night. Maintaining both a medical practice and a research group, it was no easy feat, even for an athletic young man, to keep pace with Alan as he crossed campus from the clinic to the research building and bounded up the stairs to his seventh-floor laboratory.
Alan's determination was inspiring. Riding his bike to work in Philadelphia even in bad winter weather, he once got in a nasty accident that put him in the hospital. After 2 days, he left his bed and took a plane to a scientific meeting where he was to deliver an invited lecture. He came home exhausted, but happy that he was able to present his results. However, while Alan was a ferociously hard worker, he was never too busy to mentor a student or help out a colleague.
But Alan was not all work. One evening he came to the lab and cheerfully announced that he had earned his pilot's license. From then on he would fly himself to scientific meetings around the country in his Cessna, earning himself the nickname “Sky” Gewirtz. I had always an impression that by flying a plane, he felt being closer to the stars with which he fall in love as young boy and which were continuously giving him inspiration for great scientific ideas. 1
Alan was a member of numerous scientific societies, associate editor of several prestigious journals, and recipient of many awards, including the Research Career Developmental Award from National Institute of Health and the Doris Duke Distinguished Clinical Scientist Award. He also received the Doctor Honoris Causa degree from Pomeranian Medical University, Poland. Alan's extraordinary scientific accomplishments were well known and deservedly well recognized. His research was published in numerous high impact factor journals such as Science, Nature Medicine, Nature Genetics, Blood, Leukemia and Stem Cells. He was elected to membership in both the American Society for Clinical Investigation and the Association of American Physicians. While publishing many outstanding scientific articles, he was also a caring clinician and scientific mentor, with many of his students going on to important positions at medical schools and universities around the world.
Alan continued working until the end, submitting grants, writing papers, and in his final weeks, remarkably, editing an excellent education book for the 2010 ASH meeting in Orlando. Unaware that he had been ill, many colleagues at ASH were surprised and saddened to hear of his passing. He is survived by family members Elisabeth Bien, Joanna Opalinska, and his children Jamie Gewirtz and Emily Siebel. One of Alan's close friends expressed himself that Alan was a true “mensch.” Mensch is an old word in Yiddish that means “a person of integrity and honor.” Yes Dr. Alan Gewirtz was like that.
Alan, to all of those who had a privilege to know you personally and interact with you, you were a great husband, father, friend, and mentor to many of us and we miss you a lot.