Hugh McDevitt, whose work unraveled genetic controls of the immune system, dies at 91 | Information Center
Hugh McDevitt, MD, professor emeritus of microbiology and immunology at Stanford School of Medicine who unraveled the genetic controls of the immune system, died April 28 in Stanford, Calif., of pneumonia and sepsis. He was 91 years old.
McDevitt was a dynamic leader and a mainstay in the Department of Microbiology and Immunology, according to his colleagues, who added that he was generous with his time and his intelligence. He was a smart and effective negotiator who fought for his ministry, said Grete Sønderstrup, his wife of 38 years and senior researcher at the department.
“It takes a leader like Hugh to model the collegiality you need for a community to thrive,” said Mark Davis, PhD, professor of microbiology and immunology. “He played a major role in transforming Stanford into such a thriving immunology community.”
“Hugh was both a fantastic scientist whose research had a big impact on modern immunology and someone who took the time to mentor people,” added Davis, Burt Family Professor of Immunology. and Marion Avery and Howard Hughes Medical Institute researcher.
McDevitt’s research into how our immune cells recognize invading microbes — and what happens when that process goes wrong — paved the way for modern immunology.
“Hugh McDevitt’s research changed the field of immunology,” said Lloyd Minor, MD, dean of the Stanford School of Medicine. “Hugh possessed boundless curiosity and an intellect to match. It was a powerful combination that allowed him to discover how the immune system fights infections. These same traits made Hugh a gifted teacher and mentor – his enthusiasm for science and learning was galvanizing.
McDevitt was born August 26, 1930, in Wyoming, Ohio — a suburb of Cincinnati — the youngest of five siblings. His father was a urological surgeon who wanted one of his children to be a doctor, and he imbued McDevitt with a love of science and medicine. Beginning in third grade, McDevitt’s father offered to let him skip church, instead taking him on rounds to check on his hospital patients.
When her father retired, the family moved to California, where McDevitt completed high school in Ojai.
He enrolled at Stanford University, where he graduated with a bachelor’s degree in biology with honors in 1952. As an undergraduate, McDevitt conducted laboratory research on fungi, learning genetic techniques that would prove invaluable to his career. Many immunology labs did not focus on genetics, McDevitt said in a Stanford Historical Society oral history, so the experience and knowledge gained as an undergraduate researcher set his approach apart.
McDevitt attended Harvard University Medical School, earning an MD in 1955. He did residencies at Peter Bent Brigham Hospital in Boston and Bellevue Hospital in New York, followed by two years with the Army, stationed in Japan.
Back in Boston, he obtained a postdoctoral fellowship and another residency before spending two years in London as a US Public Health Service Special Fellow at Mill Hill Laboratories. This is where he became passionate about immunology.
He returned to Stanford in 1966 as an assistant professor of immunology, becoming head of the Division of Immunology in 1970.
Pivotal research discoveries came quickly. He studied a set of molecules – the MHC, or major histocompatibility proteins – on the surface of cells and discovered that they help the immune system fight infections.
He found that, despite being on a different chromosome, changes in the mice’s MHC genes controlled the animals’ antibody responses. His work revealed that MHC molecules are essential building blocks of the immune system that bind to small bits of other protein molecules left behind in cells by viral or bacterial invaders. They present these parts to T cells of the immune system, alerting them to the presence of an infection and sending them to help B cells produce antibodies.
“It was one of those shocking things that happens in biology – someone reveals a relationship that no one knew existed but is now a bedrock of modern immunology,” Davis said.
McDevitt also mapped the genes linked to this sequence of events in the immune system. He studied what happens when things go wrong – how the immune system causes type 1 diabetes, arthritis and systemic lupus erythematosus.
While building a research legacy, McDevitt trained the next generation of immunologists.
“A lot of people who are now important have come through Hugh’s lab,” Davis said. “It doesn’t happen by itself. People come because they know they will be well advised, they will have good colleagues and they can do their best.”
Hugh would be the center of attention in a play. Because when he said something, people wanted to listen.
“Hugh was very charming with a magnetic personality. He had a way of encouraging and inspiring these young people to “think” and be creative. He let them develop their own projects and helped them get back on track if or when they failed. said Sonderstrup. “He also taught them very high standards of honesty and scientific integrity. He was adamant about the valid positive and negative controls of their experiments.
McDevitt retired in 2008 when he began to develop mild symptoms of Parkinson’s disease, although he returned to the department for meetings and seminars. He worked with Sønderstrup on his research – always lending a helpful ear (and mind).
“He would study literature and be a strong opponent in discussions around the dinner table,” Sønderstrup said. “He was an incredible partner to interact with every day, and he was blessed to stay mentally healthy and engaged until the very end of his life.”
An infinitely curious mind
Outside of medicine, McDevitt led a cultured life: traveling the world, visiting museums, attending plays in London and the opera in New York – or just going out to dinner with friends.
“Hugh would be the center of attention in a room. Because when he said something, people wanted to listen,” Sønderstrup said.
He was the eternal scientist, said his wife. “He was a curious little kid, who always wanted to explore and find out what was next,” she added.
McDevitt has won numerous awards and honours: he was elected a Fellow of the US National Academy of Sciences, the Academy of Medicine and the Royal Society of London. He received the Paul Ehrlich and Ludwig Darmstaedter Prize, the Jessie Stevenson Kovalenko Medal and the Lita Annenberg Hazen Award for Excellence in Clinical Research.
In addition to Sønderstrup, McDevitt is survived by four children and two grandchildren.