James Whitlock, dioxin researcher at Stanford Medicine, dies at 80

James Whitlock, MD, a professor emeritus of molecular pharmacology (now chemical and systems biology), who discovered the negative effects of dioxin on the human body, died at home.

- By Emily Moskal

James Whitlock

James Whitlock, MD, professor emeritus of molecular pharmacology at Stanford Medicine who studied dioxin, the toxic chemical in Agent Orange, died from prostate cancer Feb. 16 at his home in San Francisco. He was 80.

“Dr. Whitlock’s research into the long-term impacts of dioxin, a chemical that caused harm to countless people during the Vietnam War, has had a profound impact on the medical community,” said Lloyd Minor, MD, dean of the Stanford School of Medicine. “Within Stanford Medicine, he was a well-loved teacher and colleague who left an indelible mark on all fortunate to work with him. He will be greatly missed.”

Agent Orange was used to defoliate the forest and crops surrounding Vietnamese soldiers during the Vietnam War; in addition to being an herbicide, it had negative impacts on human health. The main chemical found in Agent Orange is dioxin, a pollutant that accumulates in the fatty tissue, causing cancer as well as reproductive problems and birth defects, among other disruptive health issues.

At Stanford Medicine, Whitlock worked almost exclusively on one question: How do cells respond to the toxin? He found the receptor that dioxin binds to and discovered that the receptor acts as a transcription factor — a protein that helps convert DNA into RNA — controlling the expression of multiple genes, often with deleterious effects.

The path to professor

Whitlock was born June 18, 1942, in Summit, New Jersey, and grew up in Elizabeth, New Jersey. He graduated from Princeton University in 1964 and from medical school at Temple University in 1969, completing a pediatric residency at Columbia Presbyterian Medical Center. He spent four years as a senior staff fellow at the National Institutes of Health.

He arrived at Stanford School of Medicine in 1978, teaching pharmacology until his retirement in 2007. He was also the chair of the molecular pharmacology department in the early 1990s.

“Our department stands out for its collegiality, and my sense is that Jim was a major reason that is the culture that we have,” said James Chen, PhD, chair of the Department of Chemical and Systems Biology, previously called the Department of Molecular Pharmacology. “He was a leader. He was a quiet person, kind and calm.”

James Ferrell, PhD, MD, a professor of chemical and systems biology and biochemistry, said what Whitlock loved most about his work was teaching students. Even after he shut down his lab and was no longer actively conducting research, Whitlock continued to teach the pharmacology class for seven more years.

He also loved the thrill of discovery, according to his wife, Lynn Pulliam, PhD, to whom he was married for 25 years. She said there was no better feeling to him than when a hypothesis was shown to be true.

Not just a scientist

Whitlock had a fondness for model trains and soccer, which he played as part of a league well into his 50s. He was also charitable, donating to dozens of nonprofits over the years in significant amounts, Pulliam said. He created an endowment for faculty members at his preparatory school alma mater. He also donated to the Wilderness Society, St. Jude’s, Habitat for Humanity and Doctors without Borders, among other charities.

“Jim was a solid pillar of the field yet maintained a good sense of humor in spite of his upright and proper personality,” Ferrell said.

He was also a fan of puns. Daria Mochly-Rosen, PhD, the George D. Smith Professor of Translational Medicine, said that when she started working at Stanford Medicine, Whitlock gave her a bunch of roses with one carnation. He was riffing off her last name, which sounds a little like “mostly roses.”

Whitlock stayed busy during retirement with his photography and gardening. Every year, he made a calendar of photos for Christmas presents. Spending time with family was a big part of his retirement.

“He loved the fact that I was a scientist and we both had two kids from divorces,” said Pulliam, a professor at UC San Francisco. “And so those were the most important things in our lives, to both of us.”

Whitlock is survived by Pulliam; four children and seven grandchildren; a sister and two brothers; and his ex-wife, Rosalie.

About Stanford Medicine

Stanford Medicine is an integrated academic health system comprising the Stanford School of Medicine and adult and pediatric health care delivery systems. Together, they harness the full potential of biomedicine through collaborative research, education and clinical care for patients. For more information, please visit med.stanford.edu.

2023 ISSUE 3

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