Hugh McDevitt, MD, Professor Emeritus of Microbiology and Immunology at Stanford College of Medicine Who revealed genetic controls for the immune system, died April 28 in Stanford, California, from pneumonia and sepsis. He was 91 years old.
McDevitt was a dynamic leader and a pillar Department of Microbiology and ImmunologyAccording to his colleagues, who added that he is generous with his time and thought. Great said he was a smart and effective negotiator who fought for his ministry Sønderstrup, his wife of 38 years and senior researcher on the department.
He said, “It takes a leader like Hugh to model the fellowship that you need for society to thrive.” Mark DavisPh.D., Professor of Microbiology and Immunology. “He played a key role in making Stanford University such a thriving immune community.”
“Hugh was a wonderful scientist whose research had a major impact on modern immunology and someone who took the time to mentor people,” added Davis, professor of immunology in the Burt and Marion Avery family and researcher at Howard Hughes Medical Institute.
McDevitt’s research on 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,” he said. Lloyd’s MinorMD, dean of the Stanford University School of Medicine. “Hugh possessed boundless curiosity and an intellect to match. This is a powerful combination, and it enabled him to discover the miraculous discovery of how the immune system fights infection. These same traits made Hugh a gifted teacher and educator – his enthusiasm for science and learning was motivating.”
McDevitt was born on August 26, 1930, in Wyoming, Ohio – a suburb of Cincinnati – the youngest of five siblings. His father was a urologist and wanted one of his sons to become a doctor, and he imbued MacDevitt with a love of science and medicine. Beginning in the third grade, McDevitt’s father offered to let him skip church, taking him instead on tours to check on his patients at the hospital.
When his father retired, the family moved to California, where McDevitt finished high school in Ojai.
He attended Stanford University, where he earned a BA honors degree in biology in 1952. As an undergraduate, McDevitt conducted laboratory research on fungi, learning genetic techniques that would prove invaluable to his career. McDevitt said many immunology labs haven’t focused on genetics Stanford Historical Society Oral HistoryTherefore, the experience and knowledge gained as a university researcher characterized his approach.
McDevitt attended Harvard Medical School and received his medical degree in 1955. He resided at Peter Bent Brigham Hospital in Boston and Bellevue Hospital in New York, then spent two years with the military stationed in Japan.
He returned to Boston for a postdoctoral fellowship and further residency before spending two years in London as a US Public Health Service Fellow at Mill Hill Laboratories. There he became fascinated with immunology.
He arrived at Stanford in 1966 as an assistant professor of immunology. He became head of the Department of Immunology in 1970.
Pivotal research discoveries came quickly. He studied a group of molecules – the major histocompatibility complex, proteins – on the surface of cells and discovered that they help the immune system fight infection.
He found that despite being on a different chromosome, changes in the MHC genes in mice control the animals’ antibody responses. His work found that MHC molecules are essential parts of the immune system that bind to small pieces of other protein molecules left behind by viral or bacterial invaders in cells. They present these pieces to the 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 horrific things that happen in biology — someone is revealing a relationship that no one knew existed but is now the foundation of modern immunology,” Davis said.
McDevitt also mapped genes associated with this sequence of events in the immune system. He studied what happens when it goes 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 the notable people now have come through Hugh’s lab,” Davis said. “It doesn’t happen by itself – people come in because they know they will get good advice, that they have good colleagues and that they will be able to do their best.”
Hugh will be the center of attention in the room. 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 get creative. He would allow them to develop their own projects and help them get back on track if or when they failed.” Sønderstrup said. It also taught them very high standards of scientific honesty and integrity. He was adamant that there were valid positive and negative controls in 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’s worked with Sønderstrup on her research – always giving a helpful ear (and brain).
“He was studying literature and being a staunch opponent in discussions around the dinner table,” Sønderstrup said. “He’s been a great partner to interact with every day, and he’s been fortunate to keep his mental health and be involved for the rest of his life.”
An endlessly curious mind
Away from medicine, McDevitt has enjoyed a cultural life: traveling the world, visiting museums, attending plays in London and the Opera in New York – or simply going out to dinner with friends.
“Hugh would be the center of attention in the room. Because when he said something, people wanted to listen to him,” said Sonderstrop.
His wife said he was the Immortal Realm. “He was a rather curious kid, he always wanted to explore and see what would happen next,” she added.
MacDevitt has received many awards and honors: he was elected to the US National Academy of Sciences, the Academy of Medicine and the Royal Society of London. Received the Paul Ehrlich and Ludwig Darmstaedter Prize, the Jessie Stevenson Kovalenko Medal and Lita Annenberg Hazen Award for Excellence in Clinical Research.
In addition to Sønderstrup, McDevitt is survived by four children and two grandchildren.