July-August 2018, Volume 15, Issue 4
George Stamatoyannopoulos, MD (1934-2018)
The Passing of a True Believer
Published on: July 17, 2018
Our friend and mentor, Dr. George Stamatoyannopoulos, passed away on Saturday, June 16, 2018, at the age of 84. In addition to his nuclear family, George leaves behind many friends and colleagues in the field of biomedical research into blood and its disorders. He is owed an enormous debt of gratitude that can never be fully quantified or repaid — with hundreds, perhaps thousands of scientists and clinicians who were influenced by his considerable charm, humanity, and scientific leadership. George’s passion for promoting knowledge and science never wavered, despite bravely battling through many years of ill health.
George was born in Athens, Greece, on March 11, 1934. His childhood was shaped by the cataclysmic events that engulfed Greece between 1939 and 1949, where the Nazi occupation, famine, and ensuing civil war scattered his family. Following the war, he completed a classical education, studying science during the evenings. He entered Medical School in Athens at age 17, graduating at the top of his class. George’s professional career began in 1958 when he was awarded an MD with highest honors at the University of Athens. While serving briefly on the faculty there, his early work, based on population studies, first suggested that carriers of thalassemia were protected from falciparum malaria. He also proposed the beneficial effect of fetal hemoglobin on the clinical status of patients with β-thalassemia. This work drew the attention of Dr. Arno Motulsky, a pioneer in medical genetics, who recruited him as an instructor in the department of medicine at the University of Washington in Seattle, where George remained for his entire professional career.
George was promoted through the ranks to become a professor in 1975, and founding director and division head of the medical genetics program from 1985 to 2009. He was later appointed to concurrent professorships in the departments of pathology, genetics, and genome sciences. Throughout his career he made many key advances in our understanding of the process by which hemopoietic stem cells undergo lineage specification and differentiation to form red blood cells; how the globin genes are regulated; and how this is perturbed in common forms of anemia, particularly thalassemia and sickle cell disease (SCD). Among his many honors and awards, he was the recipient of the William Dameshek Prize (1990) and the Henry M. Stratton Medal (2002), and served as president of ASH in 1992. He authored and coauthored more than a dozen transformational textbooks and more than 400 high-impact peer-reviewed scientific articles.
The academic signposts of an eminent scientists’ life do not fully convey the impact that George had on generations of young scientists and their scientific progeny. Most of the current senior scientists in this field (including we, the authors of this In Memoriam), were given the very first opportunity to present our work at what was probably George’s most important long-term legacy to hematology — the Biennial Hemoglobin Switching Conference. These meetings were the brainchild of George and Dr. Art Nienhuis (then at the National Institutes of Health [NIH]) and were established to convene scientists and clinicians to discuss the most recent findings in the burgeoning field studying the molecular genetics of the hemoglobinopathies, including thalassemia and SCD. The name of these conferences reflect George’s conviction that if we understood how the globin genes “switch” from the fetal to the adult program, and found out how to control this switch, this would provide the key to curing thalassaemia and SCD. Everyone studying the mechanisms that regulate erythropoiesis and globin gene expression from around the world was invited to these conferences, and George kept the field focused on the central question. Like all of us, George was all too human — he argued vociferously; he was not always right, but he was eternally passionate about using his prodigious knowledge and intellect to crack this scientific puzzle.
George always made a special effort to promote the careers of the young researchers who were actually making these discoveries by inviting them to present their data to their peers, allowing them to defend the experiments and their implications. In this way, he maintained international interest in globin gene regulation for the past 40 years. These conferences had, and still have, lectures and poster presentations that extend all day and into the night, most often followed by spirited discussions into the early morning hours. To say that these discussions during the meetings were lively is an understatement. George’s passion for understanding globin gene regulation and developing new ways to treat the hundreds of thousands of patients with hemoglobin disorders was infectious and continued to drive the field through many fruitful stages. George has overseen and contributed to the vastly improved diagnosis and treatment of the hemoglobinopathies, and progress toward cure via stem cell transplantation, gene therapy, and the realistic prospect of genome editing in the near future.
Everyone in our field would agree that such progress would not have developed as it has without George’s considerable national and international influence promoting our field in journals, societies, via pharma and biotech, and at NIH. Our gratitude for his spirit and for his passionate pursuit exploring the molecular genetics of hematology for the good of mankind cannot be overestimated. Our community will miss him enormously while we endeavour to pursue the scientific goals George established with the zeal his legacy should expect and demand.
As with many great scientists, George had wide-ranging intellectual interests, with an enduring love of history and philosophy. He assembled one of the largest private collections in the world of early printed books including Renaissance and post-Renaissance editions of classical Greek and Byzantine authors. He also spent his spare time using genetics to trace the origins of diverse European and particularly Greek populations: a topic on which, during his later years, he became an internationally recognized expert.
George is survived by his wife, Dr. Thalia Papayannopoulou, his two sons John and Alexi, and three grandchildren. Thalia and John shared George’s life and his passion for biomedical research, and both continue to serve on the faculty at the University of Washington.
George requested to be buried in his beloved ancestral village near the Homeric town of Kyparissia in Greece.
—Doug Engel, PhD, Professor, Department of Cell & Developmental Biology, University of Michigan
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—Doug Higgs, FRS, Director, MRC Molecular Haematology Unit, MRC Weatherall Institute of Molecular Medicine, University of Oxford