Pathology professor Heinz Furthmayr dies at 70 on trek in Nepal

- By Emily Hite

Heinz Furthmayr

Heinz Furthmayr, MD, an emeritus professor of pathology at the Stanford University School of Medicine, died of a heart attack on May 1 while on a trek in the Dolpo region of Nepal two days before his 71st birthday.

A clinical and experimental pathologist whose 47-year career advanced the understanding of the organization of the body’s connective tissue, Furthmayr contributed vital insights into the immunological and structural properties of various collagens, the composition and structure of basement membranes, the structure of membranes of red blood cells and the role of the membrane cytoskeleton in cell movement.

“Heinz made important contributions to our understanding of the genetic and biochemical basis of diseases of the connective tissue,” said Stephen Galli, MD, the Mary Hewitt Loveless, MD Professor in the School of Medicine and chair of the Department of Pathology. “He also investigated the molecular and cell biology of cell movement.”

Furthmayr’s early work examined the basic chemical and biological properties of cell membranes and interstitial tissues and their relationship to medical problems, which more recently included Marfan syndrome and other microfibrillar disorders. He published more than 120 scientific articles. He was elected to membership in the Pluto Club, an elite organization of experimental pathologists working at universities in the United States.

Often Furthmayr collaborated with Uta Francke, MD, professor emeritus of genetics and pediatrics and his wife of 25 years. He was enthusiastic about bench research, designing experiments and carrying them out with his own hands, and later, helping postdoctoral scholars and students to design their experiments and trouble-shoot their work. “He liked to have a small laboratory, and had people who were relatively independent so he treated them like colleagues,” said Francke. “Everyone benefitted from the exchange.”

He is fondly remembered by his former colleagues and students as passionate, creative and committed. “He was never afraid of the unknown,” said Manuel Amieva, MD, PhD, associate professor of pediatrics (infectious diseases) and of microbiology and immunology, who studied with Furthmayr for his PhD. “He helped me build a microscope system to do time-lapse microscopy, and then stayed up all night with me manually changing filters and marveling at the dance of moving cells.

“When we needed a new tool to answer a scientific question, he would find the way to bring it to the lab,” Amieva added. “He would modify a gel electrophoresis system, or rescue an old electron microscope, or set up an ultracryomicrotome.”

Francke recalled that her husband’s straightforward approach to teaching and talking about medicine compelled some students, though it could also be a bit frightening. While those around him might refer to a cadaver as having passed away, Furthmayr was direct. “He called death death,” Francke said, noting his strong interest in teaching on the autopsy service.

Furthmayr’s adventurous spirit extended way beyond the laboratory. He climbed many mountains and survived being caught in avalanches. Furthmayr was a pilot (as is his wife, Francke), and the two of them traveled all over the world to scuba dive, hike or engage with other cultures. They went on safari in Africa, learned Spanish in Central and South America and watched penguins being born in Antarctica. Furthmayr also ventured on his own, taking overland trips through Europe and Asia and climbing Mount Kilimanjaro twice.

Amieva recounted how Furthmayr had flown the two of them to Mexico, where they camped in Mayan ruins unreachable by road. Last year, they spent 10 days diving three times a day among sharks and poisonous sea snakes. Furthmayr taught Amieva’s daughters (Furthmayr and Francke’s godchildren) to ride an electric scooter, and he also built them a tree house. “He was a great cook, gardener and handyman — he could fix anything, in the lab, the home and the neighborhood,” Francke said.

Furthmayr was born in Linz, Austria, in 1941, and grew up in the nearby village of Ansfelden. His father was a baker who owned his own bakery and his mother had a general store in the village. Having been a schoolteacher before she married, his mother ensured that all of her eight children achieved high levels of education, and nearly all of them attended university. Furthmayr earned his MD at the University of Vienna Medical School, realizing early on his penchant for research. He completed his clinical pathology internship at Hanusch Hospital in Vienna and his medical residency at the Hospital of Mistelbach, Austria.

He worked as a research assistant in the Department of Immunology at the University of Vienna where he did research in immunochemistry and became efficient in generating antibodies against complex macromolecules. As a research associate at the Max Planck Institute in Munich he studied protein chemistry of connective tissue macromolecules. He came to the United States in 1972 as a postdoctoral scholar studying red cell membranes in the lab of Vincent Marchesi, MD, PhD, at Yale School of Medicine, becoming a faculty member in the Department of Pathology there in 1976. Highlights of his work at Yale include the discovery of the molecular basis of the MN blood group system and the organization of type-4 collagen molecules in basement membranes. Furthmayr also served as director of graduate studies in the Yale pathology department from 1982-88.

Furthmayr and Francke met in Colorado over mutual interests in science and skiing. They married in 1986 near the top of Mount Tamalpais, taking friends and a representative from city hall to the mountain, driving above the fog and then hiking upward, champagne and caviar in their backpacks.

Furthmayr’s appointment at Stanford began in 1989. He retired in 2005, and had since spent five months a year traveling. “We still had many plans to go diving together, hiking together,” Francke said.

He is survived by his wife, Francke, of Los Altos Hills, Calif.; and three sisters, four brothers, his mother, numerous nieces and nephews, all in Austria or Germany, and his two godchildren in Palo Alto.

A public memorial service will be held July 26 at 4 p.m. at Stanford Memorial Church. Donations in his memory may be made to Link TV by visiting; calling (866) 485-8848; or mailing a check to Link TV, P.O. Box 2008, San Francisco, CA, 94126. Link TV is operated by Link Media Inc., a tax-exempt charitable organization.

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