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Internet Source: Detroit Free Press, February 3, 2000
Source URL: http://vh80000.vh8.infi.net/news/obituaries/neel3_20000203.htm


James Neel: A foremost scientist in genetics field

BY BEN SCHMITT

FREE PRESS STAFF WRITER

James V. Neel wanted to know about the stuff you were made of, and he dedicated his career to finding out.

Hailed by a colleague as the "father of human genetics," the University of Michigan professor emeritus made his mark as the first scientist to recognize the genetic basis for sickle cell anemia, the lethal blood disease.

"That insight contributes as much to biomedical knowledge as any other that we have had in the past 50 years," said Eugene Major, director of the lab of molecular medicine and neuroscience at the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke in Bethesda, Md.

Francis Collins, director of the National Human Genome Research Institute, called him the father of human genetics.

Dr. Neel, a professor of human genetics and internal medicine, died of cancer Tuesday in his Ann Arbor home. He was 84.

During his 39-year career at U-M, the university set up the nation's first medical genetics program. After World War II, he studied the genetic effects of radiation on survivors of the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in Japan.

"Jim Neel was one of the most distinguished faculty in the 150-year history of this medical school," said Allen Lichter, dean of the U-M Medical School. "He was a true visionary in how genetics would one day be used, not only to determine the cause of disease, but also to treat it."

Dr. Neel was born on March 22, 1915, in Hamilton, Ohio, and received his bachelor's degree from the College of Wooster in Wooster, Ohio. He received a PhD in philosophy in 1939 and medical degree in 1944 from the University of Rochester in New York.

Dr. Neel joined the U-M faculty in 1946 as an assistant geneticist in the laboratory of vertebrate biology. From late 1946 to 1947, he served in the U.S. Army Medical Corps and directed field studies for the Atomic Bomb Casualty Commission of the National Research Council. In 1948, he returned to the university as director of the hereditary clinic at the Institute of Human Biology. Dr. Neel established the U-M Medical School's Department of Human Genetics in 1956, which he chaired for 25 years. He was named the Lee R. Dice University Professor of Human Genetics in 1966 -- a position he held until retiring in 1985.

"He has been one of our most prominent faculty members and a great presence on this campus for more than five decades," said Gilbert Omenn, professor and chair of the U-M Medical School's Department of Human Genetics.

Major collaborated with Dr. Neel over the past eight years in a study linking viruses that cause neurologic and kidney diseases to chromosomal damage. "Because of his enthusiasm and genius he had in these areas, he was able to open a whole new field to human virologists," Major said.

Dr. Neel's array of awards and honors include the Albert Lasker Award; election to the National Academy of Sciences; the Allen Award from the American Society of Human Genetics; the Smithsonian Institution Medal, and the Michigan Scientist of the Year Award from the Michigan State Legislature.

Survivors include his wife of 56 years, Priscilla Neel; a daughter, Frances Neel; sons James V. Neel and Alexander Neel; three grandchildren, and a sister.