Milestones in European Thyroidology (MET)

Jack Gross (1921-1994)

Jack Gross, whose ground-breaking contributions to the thyroid field made him a world-renowned endocrinologist, began his scientific career at an early age when, at 23, he joined the laboratory of C. P. Leblond at the McGill Faculty of Medicine in Montreal.

Jack was born in Montreal in 1921, into a middle-class Jewish family. In 1944 he received his M.D. from McGill and in 1949 his PhD, but it was his postdoctoral work in the laboratory of Rosalind Pitt-Rivers at the MRC in London in 1952 that determined what he would research for the rest of his life. A very succinct report reminiscing the work of 1952 was published by Jack in 1993 (Thyroid 3:160-161, 1993). It is, in my view, an excellent illustration of the ability to elucidate the role of a hormone with the rather primitive means available at the time.

The three pivotal techniques that resulted in this discovery were the use of radioactive iodine (131I), the identification of iodine labeled products within the thyroid or in the circulation by paper chromatography, and the synthesis of T3 which enabled a comparison of its metabolic activity with that of thyroxine. In his Ph.D. work at McGill, Jack showed that in the thyroids and blood of 131I treated rats, there is an iodine labeled spot traveling in the chromatographic separation ahead of the labeled thyroxine. With this technique, he was able to follow the effect of external factors on the turnover rates of iodinated substances. The unknown spot was also found in the circulation of rats injected with 131I labeled thyroxine; it was identified as a thyroxine metabolite.

In 1950-52, Jack was awarded a Merck Postdoctoral Fellowship to the MRC in London, where he and Rosalind Pitt-Rivers showed that this unknown thyroxine metabolite was really T3, that it was 5´ more potent than thyroxine in the goiter prevention assay in rats, and that it was very effective in raising the basal metabolic rate in a myxedematous patient. However, the medical profession had to await the early 1970s before laboratory techniques would become available to measure T3 levels in blood and tissues and establish thereby its metabolic role.

In 1952 Jack arrived in New York where he taught histology in the SUNY Downstate Medical School and continued to publish on T3 and T4 metabolism. In 1956 he rose to the rank of full professor. It was there, at SUNY, where I studied medicine, that I met Jack. He called me to his office one day and told me that he was offered a position at the newly established Hebrew University-Hadassah Medical School in Jerusalem, to head the department of Experimental Medicine and Cancer Research. A surprise that delighted me, since as a student I knew about his teaching and research abilities. It was to be a real gain for Jerusalem, and for Israel.

Jack moved to Jerusalem in 1957 and began to reform his new department by recruiting young scientists, preferentially MDs. This resulted in a profound outcrop of graduate students and an active group of scientists involved in various aspects of cell and developmental biology. Jack was very innovative: he was the first to introduce into Israel an electron microscope, scintillation counters and other novel laboratory equipment, steps that created laboratories at a par with those in much wealthier countries.

His contributions to the development of the Department of Experimental Medicine and Cancer Research during the period 1957 to 1981 were exceptional, and each recruited member was given complete academic freedom to develop an independent line of research. In 1974 he was elected Dean of the Faculty of Medicine, a position he held until 1977 and that gave him the opportunity to introduce democratic reforms, including the election of department heads.

Between 1963 and 1967, he served as the chairman of the Authority for Research and Development of the Hebrew University, a position that enabled him to set the rules concerning grants and monitory acquisitions in support of research activities throughout the Hebrew University.

His commitment to his new country, then largely underdeveloped, led to the belief that basic research could and should contribute to the establishment of science-based industries.

As a result, the first joint venture between the Hebrew University and an American company, Ames, was set up to produce in Jerusalem diagnostic kits for the thyroid axis. Those tests, based on a radio-immunoassay principle, were developed by Jack and myself, and at one time held 25% of the American market. The first kits shipped in 1968 and the company was active for almost 20 years. Since that beginning, many other research products of the Hebrew University have found their way onto the world markets.

In the same vein, Jack was nominated in 1971 as the first science adviser to the Ministry of Commerce and Industry, where he instituted the grants program, resulting in government support for industrial research. He held that position during an economically sensitive period, until 1975.

Jack Gross was an esteemed national and international figure. He was elected President of the European Thyroid Association, served as the President of the Israel Endocrine Society, and was chairman of the research committee of the Israel Cancer Association. These public activities indicate the important role that Jack Gross played in the development of scientific activity in Israel.

Jack was a very kind, wise, sympathetic man, extending aid and advice to all of us; above all, he was an optimist. We were all stunned by his sudden death in the summer of 1994, a real loss of a central figure in the scientific life of Israel.

Professor (emeritus) Amirav Gordon
Department of Experimental Medicine & Cancer Research
The Hebrew University-Hadassah Medical School
Jerusalem, Israel