Lives of the fellows

Donald Sharp Fredrickson

b.8 August 1924 d.7 June 2002

Donald Sharp Fredrickson (‘Don’) was an outstanding physician and research scientist who developed an international standard for the classification of increased risk of coronary heart disease, discovered two new genetic disorders and became director of the National Institutes of Health (NIH) in the USA. Born in Canon City, Colorado, his father was a county court judge who also ran an independent insurance agency, Fredrickson Brown. He began reading medicine at the University of Colorado and, on enlisting in the Army, completed his studies at the University of Michigan.

From 1949 to 1952 he was a resident, and later fellow, in internal medicine working in the field of endocrinology at Peter Bent Brigham Hospital in Boston. The following year he began work at the National Heart Institute (NHI) which was part of the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Maryland. There he was influenced by the Nobel prize winning chemist, Christian B Anfinsen, and started to research the metabolism of cholesterol and lipoproteins. Some seven years after the first description of the double helix he co-edited (with John Stanbury and James Wyngaarden) The metabolic and molecular bases of inherited disease (New York, Toronto and London, Mcgraw Hill, 1960) which came to be regarded as ‘the bible of molecular medicine’ and is now in its eighth edition. During his time at the NHI his group identified two genetic disorders: Tangier disease (manifested by a lack of high density lipoprotein) and cholesteryl ester disease, a lysosomal enzyme deficiency.

In 1967 he jointly published (with R I Levy and R S Lees) a series of papers that described a classification of lipoprotein abnormalities under the heading ‘Fat transport in lipoproteins — an integrated approach to mechanisms and disorders’ (N Eng J Med, 1967, 276, 34-44). Known as the Fredrickson classification, it was adopted as worldwide standard by the World Health Organisation in 1972.

Appointed clinical director of the NHI in 1960, he became general director in 1966. He left in 1974 to head the Institute of Medicine of the National Academy of Sciences, where he proved a highly effective fundraiser, and, the following year, was invited by the US president to become director of the NIH, remaining in this post from 1975 until 1981. While he was there he was at the centre of the controversy on research using recombinant DNA. At the time some of his colleagues felt that such research should be banned - he eventually issued guidelines which restored the confidence of the scientific community in this work. In his retirement he wrote an interesting history of the debate The recombinant DNA controversy: a memoir, science, politics, and the public interest 1974-1981 (Washington, DC, ASM Press, 2001).

After two years as scholar in residence at the National Academy of Sciences, he joined the private health research charity, the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, as vice-president. On his resignation in 1987, four years later, he returned to the NIH to refine his earlier work on lipid diseases and particularly Tangier disease. He also became scholar-in-residence at the National Library of Medicine in Bethesda and worked as a consultant on health care issues both in the USA and internationally. He was also personal physician to King Hassan II of Morocco, whom he treated for over 25 years.

In 1948, on a cycling tour of Europe, he was introduced to Henriette Priscilla Dorothea Eekhoff (‘Priscilla’) through her uncle, a Dutch anaesthesiologist whom he met in the US. She was studying law at the University of Leiden and they married in the Hague in 1950. He was to develop a great affection for her country and became a fluent Dutch speaker. While he continued his studies in the early 1950s, she supported him and their family by running a business importing Dutch cigars to the US. He died in his swimming pool at his home in Bethesda and is buried in Leiden. Priscilla and their sons, Eric and Ruric, survived him.

RCP editor

[Circulation; National Library of Medicine profiles; Wikipedia S. Fredrickson - all accessed 26 June 2015]

(Volume XII, page web)

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