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April 27, 2000

OBITUARY: Ernst Knobil

Ernst Knobil, who was Richard Beatty Mellon Professor of Physiology at Pitt from 1961 to 1981 and chairperson of the medical school's cell biology and physiology department, died of pancreatic cancer April 13, 2000. He was 73.

Knobil died at The Hospice of the Texas Medical Center in Houston.

A pioneering endocrinologist, Knobil located the pulse generator for a hormone that regulates reproduction. Subsequently synthesized, the hormone has since helped many women become pregnant.

Born in Berlin, Knobil grew up in Paris and emigrated to the United States in 1940 with his parents. After serving in the U.S. Army, he completed his doctorate in zoology at Cornell in 1951. He taught at Harvard before coming to Pitt in 1961.

Knobil is credited with building the Pitt medical school's Department of Cell Biology and Physiology into an internationally recognized program during his 20 years here. He also founded Pitt's Center for Research in Reproductive Physiology.

The center's current director, Tony Plant, worked with Knobil as a post-doctoral fellow and later as a fellow faculty member. "He maintained high standards in everything he did, whether it was as a researcher, a teacher or an administrator," Plant said. "He was very tough and very candid, but also very fair.

"If you were writing a paper with Ernst Knobil and you wrote something that was irrational, he let you know. He didn't try to spare your feelings. But many people, including me, learned a lot from his criticisms."

Formal in his classroom manner and dress, Knobil intimidated some students, Plant recalled. "His course on the physiology of mammals was famous. In many cases, it wasn't until years later that his students appreciated just how much they'd gained from that class," Plant said.

"It was rigorous course," said former student Selma Witchel, now a Pitt associate professor of pediatrics. "It was demanding, but it was excellent."

Knobil left Pitt in 1981 to join the University of Texas-Houston Medical School at Texas Medical Center. He was medical dean there through 1984.

In 1989, Knobil was awarded Pitt's Dickson Prize in Medicine for his research on the neurobiology of the menstrual cycle in primates. He was a member of the National Academy of Sciences and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and received honorary degrees from the University of Bordeaux, the Medical College of Wisconsin and the University of Milan.

Knobil is survived by his wife, Julane Hotchkiss of Houston; sons Erich of Menomonee Falls, Wisc., Mark of Squirrel Hill and Nicholas Hotchkiss of Bowdoinham, Maine; daughter Katharine Knobil of Raleigh, N.C., and three grandchildren.

Memorial contributions may be sent to the Ernst Knobil Lectureship, University of Pittsburgh Department of Cell Biology and Physiology, S362 Biomedical Science Tower, or to the Ernst Knobil Endowment Fund, University of Texas-Houston, Office of Development, Box 20036, Houston, Texas 77025-0036.

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