Allan J. Erslev, M.D.: Truly a Great Dane (1919–2003)


Allan J. Erslev, M.D., one of the founders of modern hematology, died November 12, 2003. He was a Distinguished Professor of Medicine at Thomas Jefferson University and former Director of the Cardeza Foundation for Hematologic Research and the Division of Hematology of the Jefferson Medical College of Thomas Jefferson University in Philadelphia, PA.

Born in Copenhagen, Denmark on April 20, 1919, Dr. Erslev studied medicine in his native country and came to the USA in 1946 for further studies. After his initial training at Sloan-Kettering Institute in New York, he went on to residency and fellowship at the Yale New Haven Hospital in the early 1950s where he acquired a respect for quantitative measurements and a love for simple physiologic phenomena. There he initiated his classic experiments on how the body regulates the production of red blood cells. He then spent several intense years of research at the Thorndike Memorial Laboratory in Boston where he was also Associate Professor of Medicine at Harvard University. In 1959, he joined the Cardeza Foundation for Hematologic Research in the Department of Medicine at Jefferson Medical College. Dr. Erslev became the third Director of the Cardeza Foundation in 1963, a position he held until 1985.

In 1953, Dr. Erslev demonstrated the existence in anemic plasma of a hormone (erythropoietin) capable of stimulating the rate of red blood cell production in normal animals and firmly established the role of this molecule as the main regulator of red cell production. Erythropoietin is made in the kidneys and stimulates the bone marrow to produce red blood cells. Dr. Erslev's pioneering work led to the concept that a feedback mechanism controls the circulating red blood cell mass according to the physiological needs of oxygen by the tissues. He spent most of his later scientific career studying the mechanisms that control the production of erythropoietin by the kidney and searching for ways to produce it in quantities sufficient to treat patients with anemia of renal disease. In 1987, his dream of being able to treat anemic patients finally bore fruit when the erythropoietin gene was cloned and erythropoietin was mass produced by recombinant methods. Recombinant erythropoietin, now known as EPO, is now commonly used to prevent and treat anemia in renal, cancer, and other patients. 

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Allan J. Erslev, M.D., 1919–2003

Dr. Erslev's influence in modern hematology goes well beyond his research on EPO. In 1972 he became co-editor and author with Williams, Rundles, and Beutler of a new textbook, Hematology. This major textbook, now going for its seventh edition continues to influence the training of most practicing hematologists worldwide. His vigorous scientific mind, contagious enthusiasm, and inspired lectures determined the fate of many young students and fellows who followed his example and dedicated their lives to the pursuit of knowledge and its application to the well being of patients.

Allan Erslev enjoyed nearly 50 years of marriage to Betsy (nee Lewis) with whom he shared a passionate love of the outdoors, music, and issues of justice in the world. Since Betsy's death in 1995, he has shared his life with his friend Betty Bodine. His children, Wendy, Carole, Eric, and Kim, and his grandchildren, Peter, Brett, Nate, Maia, Zachary, and Eva, survive him. Allan was enthusiastic, vigorous, and filled with a passion for life. He spent his leisure time climbing mountains, camping, and skiing with his family, gardening, playing tennis and bridge, listening to music, reading extensively about science and history, and writing about his great passion, mountaineering and the struggle of man to survive at high altitudes.