Now cracks a noble heart. Good night, sweet prince,
Let flights of angels sing thee to thy rest.
William Shakespeare [Hamlet]
Robert Furchgott passed away on May 19th, 2009, at the age of 92 years, after a full and admirable life. He was a giant, who has had a profound impact not only on cardiovascular physiology and pharmacology, but also on biological science in general.
Dr. Furchgott was born in 1916 in Charleston, SC. He graduated in chemistry from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and went on to obtain a PhD in biochemistry at Northwestern University. He was on the faculty of Cornell University from 1940 to 1949 and on that of Washington University School of Medicine from 1949 to 1956. He then became professor and chair of the Department of Pharmacology, at the institution that eventually became the State University of New York Downstate Medical Center in Brooklyn, NY, where he worked from 1956 to 1988. From 1989 to 2004, Dr. Furchgott was professor of Pharmacology at the University of Miami School of Medicine. A very simple exemplary academic career.
Dr. Furchgott obviously will be remembered best for his seminal discovery (published in 1980) of the obligatory role of endothelial cells in the in vitro vasodilator response to the cholinergic transmitter, acetylcholine, and for his proposal (in 1986) that the mysterious “endothelium-derived relaxing factor” is nothing else but nitric oxide. Those of us who listened to him on that day of 1986 will never forget how he simply explained step-by-step what the tissues in his organ chambers had told him and why endothelium-derived relaxing factor had to be NO. We are all aware of the fact that this very proposal opened a totally new page in biology. But his immense contribution started long before the endothelial saga! His studies on drug-receptor interactions, in particular his concept of spare receptors and receptor reserve, have been fundamental for our current understanding of how pharmacological agonists interact with cell membrane receptors. His quest for the understanding of why acetylcholine causes vasodilatation in vivo started many years before the discovery of the role of the endothelial cells and lead to the description of the powerful prejunctional (presynaptic) effect of the cholinergic transmitter on adrenergic nerve terminals. Those are but a few examples of Dr. Furchgott's monumental contribution to pharmacology and physiology.
Dr. Furchgott was a prince in science. But, he remained very humble, open, and friendly. He was always ready to talk to younger people and always had time to try to help them. He always asked the right, constructive question. He was not seeking recognition, as for him the excitement of science did not come from receiving awards but from understanding better, to be able to formulate the next hypothesis and to do the next experiment to prove or disprove the previous interpretation. But of course, recognition came and the scientific community saluted his pivotal contributions by granting him the highest signs of approval, the Albert Lasker Award for Basic Medical Research in 1996 and the Nobel Prize in 1998, to name but the most prestigious ones.
Dr. Furchgott was not only an extraordinary researcher, but also a warm loving human being. We remember his tender care when Lenore was ill and how he was consumed by her disease. We remember how more recently, he protected Maggie. We remember how he always was willing to listen to the worries of his friends, how he always tried to help. He was a good prince in life. We will miss him.
Paul M. Vanhoutte
Hong Kong, June 13th, 2009