Dr. Robert F. Furchgott, a scientist who won a share of a Nobel Prize and whose work helped lead to the development of Viagra, has died in Seattle. He was 92.
Dr. Robert F. Furchgott, a scientist who shared in a Nobel Prize and whose work helped lead to the development of Viagra, has died in Seattle. He was 92.
His daughter Terry Furchgott said her father, who previously lived in Charleston, S.C., had lived with her in Seattle for the past year. He died Tuesday, his daughter said.
Dr. Furchgott, a pharmacologist, worked with the colorless, odorless gas nitric oxide, which led to new research in cardiovascular functions. Nitric oxide had been known as a pollutant that contributed to smog and acid rain, but research by Dr. Furchgott and others found it serves as an important signal in the cardiovascular system, mediating blood pressure and blood flow.
He was awarded the Nobel Prize for physiology or medicine in 1998 for providing the first proof that a gas can perform important biochemical functions in the body. One intellectual breakthrough for Dr. Furchgott came during an airplane flight, where he jotted notes and calculations on the back of an envelope that is now displayed in a New York museum.
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Subsequent research by others has indicated that nitric oxide has significant medical potential, according to The New York Times. It is being widely explored as a possible treatment for heart disease, shock, cancer, pain and pulmonary hypertension, a potentially fatal condition in premature infants.
According to an obituary written by Dr. Furchgott’s daughters, he was the first to discover that the cells lining blood vessels produce a substance that induces vascular relaxation; he subsequently identified this novel, endothelial-derived relaxing factor as nitric oxide. Dr. Furchgott’s discoveries helped scientists understand and find new treatments for cardiovascular diseases and a host of other conditions ranging from immune disorders to memory loss, pulmonary disease and erectile dysfunction.
“His work helped an enormous amount of people,” said Terry Furchgott. He was still doing cutting-edge research well into his 80s, she said.
The ability of nitric oxide to enlarge blood vessels was a key step in the development of the drug sildenafil citrate by Pfizer, which markets it as Viagra.
Dr. Furchgott was born in Charleston, S.C., in 1916 and lived there until he was 13, when his family moved to Orangeburg, S.C. In his youth he developed a strong interest in the natural world. He collected seashells and liked to watch birds. Within his first couple of years in high school he knew he wanted to be a scientist. He attended the University of South Carolina and then the University of North Carolina, where he received a chemistry degree.
He earned a doctorate in biochemistry from Northwestern University. He taught and researched at Cornell and Washington universities before going to SUNY Downstate in 1956. He was chairman of Downstate’s pharmacology department from 1956 until 1982.
Dr. Furchgott was also a loving family man and a dedicated father, according to Jane Furchgott, one of his three daughters.
He carried the interests and mannerisms of his youth with him throughout his life. “He was a quiet, slow-talking, shy Southerner, especially compared to all the New Yorkers he was always around,” his daughter Terry said, laughing. “It was always hard for him to get a word in.”
He moved to Seattle in 2008, where he remained a nature lover. “I would take him around Green Lake, and he would look at the ducks and then come right back and look them up to see what kind they were,” she said.
According to his daughters, Dr. Furchgott was “a dedicated and brilliant scientist, a loving father, an exceptionally gentle, generous, and humble man.”
Dr. Furchgott also is survived by a third daughter, Susie Furchgott, four grandchildren and one great grandchild. His first wife, Lenore Mandelbaum Furchgott, died in 1983, and his second, Maggie Roth Furchgott, died several years ago.
A memorial service was held Saturday in Seattle.
In lieu of flowers, the family asks that donations be made to the Robert Furchgott Life Enrichment Fund at the Ida Culver House, 2315 N.E. 65th St., Seattle, WA 98133.
Seattle Times staff reporters Christine Clarridge and Craig Welch contributed to this report, which includes information from The New York Times.