Pioneering immunologist Sidney Raffel, 102, dies

Sidney Raffel

Sidney Raffel, MD, ScD, former chair of Stanford's Department of Medical Microbiology — now the Department of Microbiology and Immunology — died at his home on the Stanford campus on Dec. 27. He was 102.

Warmly remembered as a pioneering immunologist, an even-handed administrator, beloved family man and, in his later years, an artist whose numerous paintings decorated the walls of his house, Raffel practiced medicine before the advent of antibiotics and launched his research career at a time long before it was known that antibodies are produced by immune cells called lymphocytes. He continued to show up weekly for medical grand rounds and stay abreast of the latest medical literature until he was well into his 90s.

Raffel literally wrote the book on immunology — in the 1950s, he penned Immunity, Hypersensitivity, Serology, a textbook that saw several editions, the first two written entirely by him— and headed one of the world's first immunology departments, Stanford's, for well over two decades. He served as acting dean of the School of Medicine from 1964 to 1965.

Well-liked, well-respected and known as low-key and self-effacing, Raffel was an essentially serious man with a good sense of humor and a keen sense of fairness. "He always wanted to hear all sides before he made a decision," said Nobel laureate Paul Berg, PhD, professor emeritus of biochemistry, who recalled looking up to Raffel as a mentor during the early stages of his career.

"He sort of adopted me as a protégé," said Berg, who went on to win the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1980. "When I first got here in 1959, I asked him how long he'd been on the faculty at Stanford, and he told me he'd been here since 1936. 'Twenty-three years,' I thought. 'How can anyone stay in the same place for 23 years?' Of course, I've been here for 54 years now."

Born in Baltimore to Jewish immigrants from Lithuania and Latvia, Raffel graduated from high school at age 15, received a bachelor's degree from Johns Hopkins University at 18, and began graduate studies in that school's department of immunology  — the first and only such department in the United States at the time. In 1933, he was awarded a doctor of science degree, that university's equivalent of a PhD in the sciences.

Raffel arrived at Stanford in 1935 on a fellowship focusing on polio research. Soon afterward, he met the woman who would become his wife, Yvonne Fay, Stanford's first public-health nurse. They were married in 1938 and had five daughters. Their marriage lasted until her death in 2001.

After an initial appointment to the medical school faculty as assistant professor in 1936, Raffel rose to associate professor in 1942 and, in 1947, full professor in the Department of Medical Microbiology. Along the way, he earned a medical degree from Stanford. In 1953, his textbook, which he wrote by himself, was published. Later that year, he was named chair of the microbiology department, a position he held until his retirement in 1976.

Raffel's early studies were directed at parasites, mononucleosis and the polio virus. At Stanford, he turned his attention to the tuberculosis organism, which was killing large numbers of Americans at that time and to this day remains one of the world's most mortal infectious diseases. He conducted significant research throwing light on the antibody response to tuberculosis infection.

"He made immunology a real discipline within the medical school," said Irving Weissman, MD, the Virginia and D.K. Ludwig Professor for Clinical Investigation in Cancer Research, who was a medical student at Stanford during Raffel's department chairmanship. "He was the kind of leader who can speak with authority without being authoritarian, who looked into issues in depth rather than making a snap judgment. Immunology was my primary subject, so I knew him well. When I graduated in 1965, he was acting dean, and I asked his advice about skipping my internship and heading straight into research. He was practically the only person I asked who told me, basically, to go for it."

During commencement, Raffel invited all the medical students and their families to a reception at his house, Weissman recalled. "He talked to my dad about my career decision. My dad was a fur trader and businessman from Montana, so that discussion took place across quite a gap."

Raffel was pivotal at another stage of Weissman's career. "When I came up for tenure, the chair of pathology, David Korn, called Sid for advice on whether I should be given tenure, because three members of the School of Medicine faculty thought I shouldn't. Sid did a scholarly review of what I'd done and recommended tenure." Weissman, a professor of pathology and of developmental biology, is recognized today for his seminal work in discovering how a single blood-forming stem cell can give rise to a diverse arsenal of specialized blood cells.

"He was amazingly sharp on immunology issues right up to the day he died," Weissman added. "I spent an hour with him around Christmas, talking to him about my latest research. He was asking great questions."

As acting dean, Raffel "dealt with people very fairly," said Halsted Holman, MD, professor emeritus and former chair of medicine, whom Raffel helped recruit to Stanford in 1959. "He was polite but firm. You knew you got your word in, but you were also going to get a direct response. I really liked him."

Raffel was a member of the American Association of Immunologists, American Society for Microbiology, the Society for Experimental Biology and Medicine, the New York Academy of Sciences and the California Academy of Medicine. From 1947 to 1979, he was associate editor of the Annual Review of Microbiology, and during his career he served on the editorial boards of several other medicine-related periodicals. In 1956, he was appointed as the first chair of the National Institutes of Health's allergy and immunology study section, which was responsible for routing grant money to researchers nationwide. He was a 1949-50 Guggenheim Fellow at the University of Basel in Switzerland, a senior fellow at the University of Edinburgh in 1961-62, and a visiting professor at the Kyoto School of Medicine in 1973 and at the University of Shiraz School of Medicine, in Iran, in 1977.

He is survived by his daughters Linda Raffel and Gail Drewes of Stanford; Polly Stanbridge of Corona del Mar, Calif.; Cynthia Walsh of Emerald Hills, Calif.; and Emily Greenberg of Washington, D.C.; 12 grandchildren; and 14 great-grandchildren.

A memorial service is planned for February. In lieu of flowers, the family suggests a donation to the Children's Health Council, 650 Clark Way, Stanford, CA, 94305, or to a charity of the donor's choice.


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