Harry Fozzard, MD, 1931-2014

Harry Fozzard, MD, 1931-2014

Pioneer in understanding chemical and electrical signaling in heart muscle cells

December 17, 2014

Harry A. Fozzard, MD, a pioneer in the study of cardiac muscle activity, passed away in his sleep at his home in Dana, N.C., on Tuesday, Dec. 9. The presumed cause of death was an aneurysm. He was 83 years old.

Fozzard, the Otho S.A. Sprague Distinguished Service Professor Emeritus in the Department of Medicine at the University of Chicago, helped lay the foundation for modern clinical electrophysiology by mapping out the structure and function of the voltage-gated ion channels in heart muscle. These membrane proteins mediate fast communication in heart muscle. They generate the rhythm, coordinating and controlling cardiac contraction. Abnormalities in this system are responsible for several cardiac-arrhythmia diseases and sudden cardiac death.

Fozzard was "a world leader in cardiac electrophysiology," according to the American Heart Association, which honored him in 2005. His research, which helped lay the foundations for modern clinical electrophysiology, was distinguished by its "innovativeness, rigor, sophistication and broad impact."

The Fozzard laboratory perfected ion-selective microelectrodes for monitoring intact cells. They characterized the role of sodium and calcium channels and the enzyme sodium-potassium adenosine triphosphatase, which pumps sodium out and potassium into heart muscle cells, a process that regulates intracellular ion concentrations, which control the heartbeat.

They also led structure-function studies of the cloned cardiac sodium channel, using molecular modeling and guided mutations to understand how the channels were controlled and how they could be manipulated.

Fozzard was part of a distinguished team recruited by Hans Hecht, chief of cardiology at the University in the late 1960s, to work closely with clinicians to learn more about cardiac diseases and to use that knowledge to develop more effective therapies.

"When I first arrived as a post-doctoral student in his lab in the early 1980s, he was he was just about the only person around doing ion-channel electrophysiology," said Dorothy Hanck, PhD, professor of medicine at the University. "He trained with one of the founders of the field and then, during this long career, served as mentor to more than 60 PhD and MD/PhD candidates, postdoctoral fellows and scientists on sabbatical."

"He had a vision," she said. "He knew how to build a program, how to make it a success. And somehow he managed to keep up with his clinical work. Most people outside the medical center think of him as a basic scientist, but he was also a very good doctor."

Fozzard was the author or co-author of nearly 250 original papers, reviews, editorials and book chapters. He earned continuous funding from the National Institutes of Health for his research for more than four decades. In 1966, he helped secure the University's first cardiovascular sciences training grant from the NIH, one of the oldest and most successful such grants in the country. It remains active today, under the direction of James Liao, MD, cardiology section chief at the University of Chicago.

Harry Allen Fozzard was born April 22, 1931, in Jacksonville, Fla. He attended Washington and Lee University, in Lexington, Va., for three years, where he met his wife, Lyn Lane, who attended nearby Sweet Briar College. In 1952, he entered the Washington University School of Medicine, where two of his teachers (Earl Sutherland Jr. and Robert Furchgott) went on to win Nobel Prizes.

He graduated in 1956, completed an internship in internal medicine at Yale University followed by two years of active duty in the U.S. Marine Corps and residency training at Washington University's Barnes Hospital. He then completed fellowships in cardiology at Washington University and in cardiac electrophysiology at the University of Bern, where he learned cardiac electrophysiology and developed a voltage clamp to measure electrical currents in cardiac cells.

In 1964, he was appointed assistant professor of medicine and physiology at Washington University, where he established and directed the first coronary care unit at Barnes Hospital. Working with engineering colleagues there, he pioneered a digital computer system for real-time arrhythmia monitoring.

In 1966, he came to the University of Chicago as an associate professor of medicine and director of the myocardial infarction research unit. He was promoted to professor in 1971 and named co-section chief, with Leon Resnekov, of cardiology. During this period he directed the biomedical computer facility, the cystic fibrosis research center and the Committee on Cell Physiology. From 1990 to 1998, he chaired the Department of Pharmacological & Physiological Sciences. In 1998, he took emeritus status.

Fozzard's contributions to the field of electrophysiology brought many accolades. He was vice-president for research, editor-in-chief of Circulation Research, and one the board of directors for the American Heart Association. That group presented him with their Award of Merit in 1983 and their Distinguished Scientist Award in 2005.

He served on the editorial boards for Circulation, the American Journal of Physiology and the American Journal of Cardiology, and on the board of reviewing editors for Science. He was named a fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science and a member of the Association of American Physicians and the American Society for Clinical Investigation. He was chairman of several NIH study sections, a Fulbright Scholar at the University of the Republic in Montevideo, Uruguay, where he was awarded an honorary doctorate, and a Litchfield Professor at Oxford University in 1991.

He was a valued teacher to countless college, graduate and medical students. And he was, for decades, a cherished colleague that heart specialists and others turned to for both clinical and scientific advice.

"He was a true gentleman, sound in judgment and principles -- and one of my favorite people," said his friend Frank Fitch, MD, the Albert D. Lasker Professor Emeritus in the Department of Pathology and the Ben May Department of Cancer Research at the University. "I was glad to have him represent me in institutional politics. He always seemed to be on the right side, and for the right reasons."

Away from the laboratory, Fozzard was a competitive sailboat racer on Lake Michigan and an enthusiastic mountain climber. He also had a talent for scherenschnitte (scissor cuts), a 16th century Swiss-German folk art. His wife Lyn helped start the first Meridian Hospice, to provide end-of-life care for people on the South Side of Chicago.

After he retired, the Fozzards moved to his wife's home town in the mountains of western North Carolina, where he volunteered at a free clinic and at the Environmental & Conservation Organization. He also served on the NC State Board on Clinical Psychology and he and his wife volunteered as screeners with Pisgah Legal Services. Most recently, he joined the Apple Valley (NC) Model Railroad Club.

His death is a "huge loss for the whole field," said cardiologist Jafar Al-Sadir, MD, professor of medicine at the University of Chicago, who came to the university to study with Fozzard.

"He was remarkable, the smartest guy I have ever seen," Al-Sadir said. "You could count on him to think outside the box on any problem. He routinely suggested solutions no one else would have thought of. Since I first heard of his passing, it has been hard for me to get him off of my mind."

Fozzard is survived by his wife, Lyn Lane; their two sons, Richard (wife Jan) and Peter (Elizabeth); four grandchildren; brother George (Veronica) and a nephew, Harry. Funeral arrangements are not yet complete. In lieu of flowers, donations could be sent to the MR Lane Fund of the Community Foundation of Western North Carolina, at 4 Vanderbilt Park Dr., No. 300, Asheville, NC 28803.