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Irving London, founding director of Harvard-MIT Program in Health Sciences and Technology, dies at 99

Longtime biology professor and expert in hemoglobin synthesis was committed to the integration of biomedical research, education, and medical practice.
Irving London
Irving London
Photo courtesy of the Institute for Medical Engineering and Science.

Irving M. London, founding director of the Harvard-MIT Program in Health Sciences and Technology (HST) and an expert in the molecular regulation of hemoglobin synthesis, died on May 23 at age 99. 

The HST community had recently celebrated London’s life and accomplishments on the occasion of his approaching 100 birthday. London expressed great pleasure in the festivities, held on May 7.

London was born in Malden, Massachusetts, on July 24, 1918. He graduated from Harvard College with a bachelor of arts degree, summa cum laude, in 1939; he simultaneously earned a second bachelor’s degree from the Hebrew College in Roxbury, Massachusetts. London weighed attending law school versus medical school after graduation, eventually accepting an offer from Harvard Medical School (HMS). His tenure at HMS instilled in him a love of research that spanned the rest of his career.

After graduation, London accepted an internship at Columbia-Presbyterian Medical Center. His training was interrupted by World War II, where he served as a captain in the Medical Corps. He was also part of a research effort that showed the efficacy of chloroquine as an anti-malarial drug. At the end of his military service, he was assigned to Bikini Atoll in the South Pacific to serve as the physician for the Congressional delegation to the atom bomb tests.

London returned to New York to resume his residency after the war. Following residency, he took up a research fellowship in the Department of Biochemistry at Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons. He soon joined the faculty and embarked on a rich research, teaching, and clinical tenure at Columbia. In 1954, London became the founding chair of the Department of Medicine at Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York. He served as professor and chair of the department, and directed medical services at the Bronx Municipal Hospital Center until 1970.

In 1968 London was invited to serve as a consultant to MIT and Harvard Medical School to assist in the planning of a new program joining the two institutions. He then devoted a sabbatical year to carrying out the initial program development, including garnering the support of the faculties of both MIT and HMS. In 1970, he accepted the directorship of this new entity, the Harvard-MIT Program in Health Sciences and Technology. HST represents London’s commitment to the integration of medical education and university education, and integration of interdisciplinary biomedical research, education and medical practice. London, who was professor of medicine at HMS and professor of biology at MIT, served as the director of HST until 1985.

London received numerous awards and honors over the years for his groundbreaking work explaining the molecular regulation of hemoglobin synthesis at the level of gene transcription and translation into protein. The honors include: a Welch Fellowship in Internal Medicine of the National Academy of Sciences from 1949-1952, the Theobald Smith Award in Medical Sciences of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in 1953, the Commonwealth Fund Fellowship at Institut Pasteur from 1962-1963, election to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1963, charter membership in the Institute of Medicine of the National Academy of Sciences in 1970, and elected membership in the National Academy of Sciences in 1971. From 1982 to 2003, he served first on the board of directors and then on the Biosciences Advisory Committee of the pharmaceutical company Johnson and Johnson.

Looking back over his career, London derived great satisfaction from having played a key role in the founding of three institutions known for their contributions to medical research, practice, and education: Albert Einstein College of Medicine, the Institute of Medicine of the National Academy of Sciences, and HST. His passion for HST never abated. As late as fall 2017, he continued to teach and co-direct HST.140 (Molecular Medicine), a course that he developed with Paul Gallop in 1979. London was present for most of HST’s major events, including the HST Forum, HST dinner seminars, and HST graduation. There he shared his intellect, wit, and warmth with the students, faculty, alumni, and staff of HST.

London was preceded in death by his wife, Huguette. He is survived by his sons, Robb and David, as well as Robb’s children Jacob and Danielle.

London was looking forward to HST’s 50th anniversary in 2020. His pioneering work in creating a unique physician/scientist/engineer training program is his enduring legacy, and positions HST well for the next 50 years.

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