This series, Faculty Remembered, features profiles of former faculty members at P&S. The author of the series is a 1951 P&S graduate and former professor of medicine. He is now special lecturer in medicine and writer-in-residence at P&S.
ONE WAY TO DESCRIBE JOE JAILER IS BY DUALITIES-OPPOSITES: laboratory worker-practitioner, physician-scientist, doctor-teacher. The duality with the most consequences was, arguably, one of personality in the sense of outside vs. inside: On the surface he was unassuming, easy going, gentle; inside he harbored a driving ambition and a powerful wish to succeed. To those who knew him well in his last decade it seems, without claiming any deep psychoanalytic insight, that the restless, demanding inner life might have pulled hard against the placid exterior, setting up tensions that rendered him too vulnerable to the stress that killed him.
Dr. Jailer grew up on the Lower East Side of New York City, attending public school there and graduating with honors from City College in 1934. He earned the M.S. degree at NYU two years later, then went on to study and work toward a Ph.D. in anatomy at P&S with Philip E. Smith, a hard taskmaster whom, nevertheless, J.J. came to regard as his scientific father. The Ph.D. was awarded in 1940 for work on the metabolic changes that accompany hypo- and hyperfunction of the thyroid and testes in primates.
Having intended a career in basic endocrine research, he was persuaded especially by P&S anatomist Earl T. Engle to get a medical degree so he could make his obvious talents available to the study of human endocrine disease. He would have preferred to keep working in the lab, but his advisers and friends, especially Engle, kept him at his medical studies. Jailer excelled at P&S, where he was elected to AOA. After graduating in 1943 he was appointed to a medical internship at Presbyterian Hospital.
Like most young doctors of his age, he was quickly inducted into the Army Medical Corps. Working in and later heading a chemistry lab at the Army medical school in Washington, D.C., he studied the pharmacology of barbiturates and antimalarials, a kind of activity not totally useless for a man destined to go on working in biology and chemistry. Returning to civilian life and New York in 1946, he briefly held a couple of prestigious fellowships, then joined the Faculty of Medicine at Columbia in 1947. Columbia in those days was quite Ivy League. Many department heads were Ivy Leaguers. Jailer felt a little out of place, especially since he was unable to obtain an appointment in Medicine, which was what he wanted and was best trained for. He had to settle for a junior faculty rank in ob/gyn. At the time of his death 13 years later he still held only a clinical appointment as associate professor of clinical medicine (assigned to obstetrics and gynecology, where his laboratory was located). His friends believed this rankled Dr. J. It is true that by 1959-60, when his national reputation was secure, he had been assured of a full professorial appointment and a lab in Medicine, but Jailer died suddenly in August 1960 before this plan could be put into effect.
The salient feature of Jailer's work was its wide range. From 1934 to 1960 he and his collaborators produced more than 85 papers on genetics, immunology, histology, chemical measurement of drugs and hormones in body fluids, and estrogen metabolism. His studies ranged over six or seven endocrine glands. Late in his career he found what appeared to be an abnormal corticotropin in "pituitary-dependent" Cushing syndrome associated with adrenal hyperplasia. His most brilliant insight was the almost intuitive grasp of the main enzymatic defect that explained much about the "major" steroid biosynthetic defect of congenital adrenocortical hyperplasia with virilism, a discovery made almost simultaneously by Wilkins of Baltimore. Jailer and his biochemist colleague Seymour Lieberman confirmed this insight with an experiment of uncommon ingenuity. Some of Dr. Jailer's more hyperkinetic academic friends envied his relaxed, casual, unruffled manner, his sauntering gait, his quiet good cheer. The taut P&S atmosphere of that era demanded more suffering, more spasm, more obvious effort.
Despite his early death, his career boasted 20 postdoctoral fellows trained (people from many countries), membership in all the right scientific societies, the products of his rich imagination. In the summer of 1960, his 9-year-old daughter died in a freak accident at summer camp. A few days later, Joe died suddenly of an acute myocardial infarction; agonally, the serum cholesterol was greatly raised and autopsy disclosed massive cardiac atherosclerosis, all of this unsuspected. We might speculate that his outward serenity held back too much.
This article is based on an obituary the author wrote for the December 1960 Journal of Clinical Endocrinology and Metabolism 20(12): 635-637.