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“Charles H. Sawyer, Pioneering Neuroendocrinologist”

October 20 , 2006

Pioneering neuroendocrinologist. Born Jan 24, 1915, in Ludlow, VT, USA, he died on June 20, 2006, of Alzheimer's disease in Irvine, CA, USA, aged 91 years.

When Charles Sawyer graduated from Middlebury College, Middlebury, VT, USA, in 1937 with “an interest in enzymes and hormones”, as he later put it, and travelled to Cambridge University, UK, for a 2-year fellowship, he landed in the midst of a revolution in neuroendocrinology. “2 years before the start of World War II, British physiology was very excited about acetylcholine, cholinesterase, and neurohumoral transmission, and Dale and Loewi had just received the Nobel Prize for their research on humoral mediation of the nerve impulse”, Sawyer would later write.

Sawyer's experience at Cambridge set the stage for his own groundbreaking work in neuroendocrinology, which spanned the 1940s until his retirement in the 1980s. His research paved the way for the development of the birth control pill and the treatment of infertility. “Everybody's got something that they look back on and think is most important”, says Paul Micevych, professor of neurobiology at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), where Sawyer was a professor for more than 30 years. “For me, probably the key was an experiment he did very early on, in which he showed that the hypothalamus was actually crucial to the control of ovulation and that it was under the control of a circadian clock.”

Sawyer, who was know as Tom, also demonstrated the effect of norepinephrine on the control of ovulation, and the role of oestradiol in stimulation of the nervous system. He and Donald Pfaff implanted oestradiol in the venteromedial nucleus of the rabbit, which produced lordosis. Others cite Sawyer's recognition of what turned out to be rapid-eye-movement sleep in rabbits. Micevych also noted that in the late 1950s, Sawyer showed that progesterone would induce changes in rabbits on electrocardiogram. “That work was lost for about 40 years and resurrected in the 1990s”, he said. “It's now a very hot area of research.”

“Almost every place you dig in endocrinology he's had an influence”, said Micevych. “In a sentence, he is to neuroendocrinology what Cajal is to neuroanatomy”, Micevych told The Lancet. “Sawyer, like Cajal, probed every major question in reproductive neuroendocrinology. His approach was very modern, even if the techniques he had available were not as developed as they are now. Tom was really a neuroendocrinologist in a time when most of his contemporaries were neuroendocrinologists.”

Sawyer earned his PhD in zoology from Yale University, New Haven, CT, in 1941, and served as an instructor in anatomy at Stanford University from 1941 until 1943. He was a member of the faculty of two medical schools: Duke, in North Carolina, which he joined in 1944, and UCLA, which was new when he joined its faculty in 1951. “He was a major leader at UCLA”, said Art Arnold, now chair of the department of physiological science at UCLA. He lectured to the first class of medical students, and taught gross anatomy for a number of decades. “By dint of his own very important work he established a centre at UCLA in neuroendocrinology that continues as a major focus of the scientific community.” He also helped others, including Roger Gorski, become established.

“He was basically a gentleman and a scholar and the kind of guy who commanded a lot of respect from the people who worked very closely with him at all levels. He treated people fairly”, Arnold told The Lancet. Ei Terasawa, who worked with Sawyer as a postdoctoral student, remembers him as “a big-minded person, such a gentleman”. Terasawa, now a professor of paediatrics at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, recalls that “I never saw him upset.” Terasawa also noted Sawyer's passion for classical music, the subject he had planned to study in college before two professors stimulated his interest in biology. Sawyer, who donated his body to the University of Southern California School of Medicine, is survived by his wife of 55 years, Ruth Schaeffer, and a daughter, Joan Sawyer Steffan, an assistant professor at the department of psychiatry and human behaviour at University of California, Irvine, who called him her scientific inspiration.

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