Howard Sussman played a pivotal role in consolidating and automating Stanford Medicine’s clinical pathology laboratory, implementing an information system used for decades.
September 13, 2022 - By Krista Conger
Howard Sussman, MD, emeritus professor of pathology, died July 14, 2022, in Palo Alto. He was 87. Sussman is remembered for orchestrating the consolidation and automation of Stanford Medicine’s clinical pathology laboratory operations in the early 1970s.
“Howard Sussman was a beloved and dedicated advocate of Stanford Medicine’s clinical pathology laboratory for many years,” said Lloyd Minor, MD, dean of the School of Medicine. “He conceived of and implemented critical upgrades to the clinical pathology’s laboratory information system that enabled it to function efficiently for decades, and he cultivated a culture of respect and learning greatly admired by his colleagues and trainees. His influence on the pathology department is lasting and appreciated.”
During a medical residency at the National Institutes of Health early in his training, Sussman was the first to prove that there were at least three genes encoding alkaline phosphatases — enzymes important in metabolism and development — in humans. Later in his career, his laboratory was the first to identify and characterize the receptor for transferrin — a protein found in blood that transports iron throughout the body.
Sussman was born Oct. 21, 1934, in Portland, Oregon. He attended the University of Oregon before earning a master’s and medical degree from Oregon Health Sciences University. He completed residencies at Columbia University and the NIH.
While at the NIH, Sussman worked closely with Ernest Cotlove, MD, to incorporate computers into the laboratory workflow by developing a computerized laboratory information system at the research agency.
Sussman was recruited to Stanford in 1970 by David Korn, MD, who had recently arrived as chair of the department of pathology. Korn had been tasked with re-envisioning and reorganizing the department after the school’s move from San Francisco to Palo Alto in 1959.
“Howard was strongly research oriented and would be a continuously funded investigator and member of the department’s evolving research unit,” Korn recalled in a 2012 memoir. “During his years at NIH, Howard had developed keen insight into clinical laboratory operations and … he began to focus on automating Stanford University Hospital’s clinical laboratory operations.”
Taking charge of the lab
In 1974, Sussman became the director of the clinical laboratory, and shortly thereafter the department received accreditation from the College of American Pathologists. With Korn, he developed a new billing system for laboratory testing services that became a source of funding for the pathology department for years to come.
“Howard was instrumental in reimagining Stanford Medicine’s clinical pathology laboratories into one, more-efficient enterprise with a bespoke laboratory information system that was used for 30 years,” said James Zehnder, MD, director of clinical pathology and professor of pathology and medicine. “He hired me into the pathology department and was a wonderful mentor, colleague and friend who gave me a lot of candid, down-to-earth advice about my career and the direction of the pathology department. He will be missed and remembered for his many contributions to the department.”
Sussman’s colleagues and students recall him as a thoughtful and caring mentor, a well-read Renaissance man and an avid athlete who enjoyed handball, baseball and long weekend bicycle rides in the hills around campus. He had a fondness for unique cuisine and cars, and loved history, often stating that if he hadn’t gone to medical school, he would have been a history professor.
He was also a devoted family man; he and his wife, Neilda, who preceded him in death in 2014, raised three children in their Portola Valley home where he lived from 1971 to 2016.
He is survived by his children, Sarah Sussman, Rai Sue Sussman and Daniel Sussman; and six grandchildren.
A memorial service was held at Congregation Beth Am in Los Altos Hills, California, on July 18.
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