Remembering Harvey Itano

Portrait of Harvey Itano, 1954. Image courtesy of the Caltech Institute Archives.

“The discovery by Dr. Itano of the abnormal human hemoglobins has thrown much light on the problem of the nature of the hereditary hemolytic anemias, and has changed these diseases from the status of poorly understood and poorly characterized diseases into that of well understood and well characterized diseases.”

-Linus Pauling, 1955.

We were saddened to learn of the death of Harvey A. Itano, emeritus professor of pathology at the University of California, San Diego.  Dr. Itano passed away on May 8, 2010 at the age of 89.

Best known professionally for his work on sickle cell anemia, Itano’s early personal history makes for fascinating reading.  According to this excellent obituary issued by UCSD

Itano was born in Sacramento, CA on November 3, 1920, the oldest of four children of Masao and Sumako Itano, originally of Okayama-ken, Japan.  A star student at UC Berkeley, he graduated in 1942 with highest honors in chemistry.  He was unable to attend his own graduation ceremony, because he and his family were confined to internment camps established after the bombing of Pearl Harbor for the detention of Japanese and Japanese-Americans living in the western US.  In recognition of his outstanding achievements as a student, having earned the highest academic record in his class, then-UC President Robert Gordon Sproul personally awarded him the University Medal during his internment.

[...] He was released from the camp on July 4, 1942, the first of the Nisei (second generation Japanese-Americans) to be released to attend colleges and universities.  He attended the St. Louis School of Medicine, where he earned his MD in 1945 before continuing his studies at California Institute of Technology, earning a PhD in Chemistry and Physics in 1950.

It was at Caltech that Itano came into contact with Linus Pauling, his major professor during his doctoral studies and research colleague for the duration of a four year post-doctoral stint in Pasadena.  Over the course of this time period, Itano, Pauling and their collaborators made a series of significant contributions to the field of molecular biology.

Most prominent among these contributions was a 1949 paper published in Science, titled “Sickle Cell Anemia, A Molecular Disease.”  Authored by Pauling, Itano, S. Jonathan Singer and Ibert C. Wells, the paper presented experimental evidence in support of Pauling’s theory that sickle cell anemia could be traced to significant abnormalities in the hemoglobin molecules of those suffering from the disease.  The paper was quickly recognized to be the first solid proof of the existence of a “molecular disease.”

In his book Force of Nature, Pauling biographer Thomas Hager comments on the importance of this discovery.

People had theorized in broad terms about the molecular basis of disease before, but no one had ever demonstrated it the way Pauling’s group did….By pinpointing the source of a disease in the alteration of a specific molecule and firmly linking it to genetics, Pauling’s group created a landmark in the history of both medicine and molecular biology.

Itano spent much of his long career furthering the breakthroughs signaled in the 1949 paper.  Among other achievements, he developed a “rapid diagnostic test” for sickle cell anemia which would quickly indicate whether or not a given blood sample would sickle.  With S. J. Singer, Itano also described the condition of sicklemia, an intermediate and less severe stage of sickle cell anemia in which a patient’s blood contains a mix of normal hemoglobin and sickled hemoglobin cells.

Harvey Itano and Linus Pauling. 1980s.

Linus Pauling held Itano in high regard, both as a scientist and as a person.  In a lengthy award nomination that Pauling composed for Itano in 1955, Pauling describes the specifics of Itano’s contribution to the team’s molecular disease breakthrough while noting his “great natural ability and thoroughly sound training in chemistry and related sciences as well as in medicine.”  Of the man, Pauling wrote

His success must also be attributed in part to his excellent personality.  He is quiet and pleasant in manner, and is well liked by all of his associates.  During his eight years at the California Institute of Technology he made many friends, and he was uniformly successful in effective collaboration with a number of co-workers.  He is original, clearheaded, keen, and critical in his scientific work.

Itano maintained a keen interest in his rich genealogical background, and those who wish to learn more about his story are encouraged to visit the Itano family history website.  A great deal more about Itano’s role in the sickle cell anemia and molecular disease story is likewise available at It’s in the Blood!  A Documentary History of Linus Pauling, Hemoglobin and Sickle Cell Anemia.

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