At this time of year when smiles, laughter and counting blessings are synonymous with the cheer of the season, the loss of a family member, a friend, a mentor is especially poignant. But when it is a person who has been acknowledged for their accomplishments and ethics, then even strangers mourn the loss.
So it is with Wednesday’s death of Dr. Alfred “Al” Gilman.
It was just this past March that Al was one of the speakers at the dedication of the Kern Wildenthal Biomedical Research Building.
And while he was world-famous for his research and his leadership at UT Southwestern, Gilman was also known for having a marvelous sense of humor as was on display when he “toasted”Marnie Wildenthal and “roasted” Kern Wildenthal, when the couple was honored at The Senior Source’s “Spirit of Generations Luncheon” in 2010.
He recalled at another time that when he was a youngster, he made “a reservation for a trip to the moon.”
In addition to his leadership in research and his taking a stand about questionable practices by the Cancer Prevention and Research Institute of Texas, Gilman was awarded the Nobel Prize 1994 for his discovery of G proteins that “are known to be in nearly all cells and to play a vital role in such bodily processes as vision, smell, hormone secretion and even thought.” In 2012, he donated the award to the Perot Museum of Nature and Science in downtown Dallas to help inspire a younger generation to pursue medicine and research initiatives.
But these accomplishments should not have surprised anyone. After all, his father Dr. Al Z. Gilman, had been a Yale School of Medicine professor and wrote the classic pharmacology textbook, “The Pharmacological Basis of Therapeutics” with Louis S. Goodman. The collaboration was such a great partnership that young Al’s middle name was Goodman. As he later put it, “Perhaps my fate was sealed from that day; as my friend Michael Brown once said, I am probably the only person who was ever named after a textboook.”
Like his father, Al went into the field of pharmacology, earning his BS in 1962 from Yale (he graduated summa cum laude) and going on to Case Western Reserve University School of Medicine in Cleveland, where he was a student of Nobel laureate pharmacologist Earl Sutherland.
In 1981 Gilman became the chairman of UT Southwestern’s Department of Pharmacology, thanks to being recruited by, among others, a 38-year-old Kern, who had just been promoted to Dean of the Medical School. Ironically, it was discovered that the two also shared the same birthdate — July 1, 1941. More than 30 years later, the school created the Alfred G. Gilman Distinguished Chair in Pharmacology endowment, a $1 million gift that went to his successor, Dr. David Manglesdorf. He was also the first scientific director of the Cancer Prevention and Research Institute of Texas, a public institution that has provided nearly $1.5 billion in grant funding to research ways to decimate cancer. (It was approved by voters in 2007 to dole out $3 billion in grants.)
Thanks to his work and ethics, Gilman’s contributions to the world will live on. A few statements from UT Southwestern:
Nobel Laureate Dr. Michael Brown, Regental Professor of the UT System, Director of the Erik Jonsson Center for Research in Molecular Genetics and Human Disease:
“In 1981, Al Gilman became our neighbor in a nearby lab. We immediately became friends because of several shared passions, particularly for hard core science. Of all the scientists I have known, Al had the most unrelenting commitment to scientific integrity. He could not abide sloppy or phony science, and he said so openly, even when it would have been much safer to stay silent. We may never see the like of him again.”
Dr. Daniel Podolsky, president of UT Southwestern:
“Dr. Gilman was a giant in medical research. His discovery of G proteins and their critical functions is a cornerstone of research across virtually every important domain of medicine. As a scientist, teacher, and leader, Dr. Gilman’s contributions are legion. He mentored many scientists who have gone on to become leaders in their fields, and his dedication to serving UT Southwestern was unwavering. Dr. Gilman will be missed by the entire UT Southwestern community and our heartfelt sympathies are with his family.
Dr. David Mangelsdorf, Chairman of Pharmacology at UT Southwestern, who was Dr. Gilman’s successor in the department:
“I was privileged to know him as a great scientist, a great mentor, and above all, as a great human being. I am truly honored to be a part of his legacy at UT Southwestern.”