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P&S Journal

P&S Journal: Winter 1996, Vol.16, No.1
Faculty Remembered: Harry B. Van Dyke 1895-1971

By Nicholas P. Christy'51

When Harry Van Dyke began his 20-year tenure as Hosack Professor and Chairman of Pharmacology in 1944, the omens did not look bright. The country was occupied with World War II, not a favorable time for Van Dyke's main interest, unfettered research. He had inherited a small, old-fashioned department. Money was scarce-the dean kept what there was locked in a drawer-and the competition was stiff: Of the 21 other departmental chairmen, 12 were international superstars, some presiding over large, rich, aggressive organizations. An account of Van Dyke's years (1944-63) should explain how an unostentatious, inward man, chiefly devoted to laboratory investigation, became world-famous while building an outstanding department.
Born in Iowa, Harry Van Dyke obtained his Ph.D. in pharmacology and physiology at the University of Chicago in 1921, an M.D. from Rush Medical College two years later. After internship at Cook County Hospital and marriage, he tried-briefly and painfully-to combine research and teaching pharmacology with private practice. Happily, the award of an NRC Traveling Fellowship put an end to this grim period, enabling him to spend 1924-26 studying in Edinburgh and elsewhere with famous mentors, including A.R. Cushny. Back in Chicago, he spent the next six years in studies on many drugs, e.g., digitalis, and on glandular physiology that would establish him as a pioneer in the new science of endocrinology.
Characteristically adventurous, he accepted the professorship of pharmacology at the Rockefeller-sponsored Peiping Union Medical College, establishing a new department, pursuing research, and writing-in longhand-a two-volume monograph, "The Physiology and Pharmacology of the Pituitary Body," an original and seminal work. During that time (1932-38) he learned to extract first-rate performance from underpaid Chinese lab technicians unaccustomed to discipline and cured his horse of strychnine poisoning, earning him a reputation as veterinarian and sorcerer. Leaving China-not forced out by the Sino-Japanese War (he viewed the Japanese army as a mere nuisance)-Van Dyke in 1938 became head of pharmacology at the Squibb Institute for Medical Research, where he continued work on reproductive physiology in animals and, in response to wartime needs, studied relevant drugs-anti-malarials, sulfonamides, antibiotics, analgesics. Once established at P&S in 1944, he devoted his research effort exclusively to the neurohypophysis from 1950 on.

In a career spanning a half century-1920-1970-he published more than 140 papers on many topics, moving from pharmacology and general endocrinology through the anterior pituitary, finally settling on the posterior pituitary, which he investigated with single-minded concentration. "H.B.," as he was known, made major contributions, mostly based on his unrivaled skill as a meticulous bioassayist. After early work on the thyroid, he turned to pituitary-gonadal relation, developing the first reliable assay for LH. H.B. then purified the gonadotropins, providing much of the basis for defining FSH and LH as separate hormones. He was first to localize MSH in the pars intermedia and the oxytocic, vasopressor, and ADH activities in the pars neuralis. H.B.'s major contribution was to isolate and characterize the "Van Dyke Protein" from the posterior pituitary, a peptide-protein complex to which oxytocin and vasopressin are loosely bound, a finding that yielded the concept of neurophysins, swept away much misinformation about the function of the neurohypophysis, and led H.B., with Cornell Nobelist Vincent du Vigneaud, to a fruitful collaboration on neurohypophyseal peptides.

With all this activity and a chronic lack of funds, H.B. still managed to create a superb department, one of the best in the world. Not himself a charismatic teacher, he recruited Alfred Gilman, Alfred Gellhorn, and Frederick Hofmann, all brilliant lecturers, and the eminent teacher-researchers Wilbur H. Sawyer, William Douglas, J. Murdoch Ritchie, and Paul Brazeau. S.C. Wang, lured from physiology, added a neurophysiologic dimension and his large NIH grants provided welcome financial support for the department. In the '40s and '50s, medical students regarded the pharmacology course as fun; besides, we saw that it amply made up for pedagogic deficiencies of other departments.

Still venturesome after retirement, H.B. returned to the Orient, founding pharmacology units in Taipei and Kuala Lumpur, continuing there and at P&S to work in the laboratory. His last paper appeared in 1968, two years before he received the Henry Dale Medal, the highest honor of the British Society for Endocrinology.

More influential outside P&S than within, H.B. was not easy to know, but students liked him, sensing warmth under his crusty exterior. His manner was formal, courtly; innately chivalrous, he believed he played a pivotal role in helping Virginia Apgar to become P&S's first full female professor. At leisure, he played bridge and poker, indulged a compulsion to buy or sell almost anything, and doted on fast cars, boasting about how many blocks he could race down Broadway on one light.

Foibles aside, H.B. was a true giant of endocrinology. This modest, unassuming man, not a glittering self-promoter, had old-fashioned virtues: industry, intense focus, discriminatory power, sound judgment. Drawing on only these, H.B. placed an indelible stamp on world science and on the intellectual history of Columbia.

The writer received indispensable help from many people: Pharmacology Chairman Brian F. Hoffman; Professor Norman Kahn; Professor Emeritus Wilbur H. Sawyer; Christine L. Haider, executive assistant in pharmacology; and Dr. Van Dyke's daughter, Mrs. John Felber.


copyright ©, Columbia-Presbyterian Medical Center

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