Vol 8. Issue 5 / February 11, 2008

In Memoriam:
Frank J. Dixon, 1920-2008

Frank J. Dixon, pioneering immunologist and founder of The Scripps Research Institute, died in San Diego, California, on Friday, February 08, 2008. He was 87.

"We were deeply shocked and saddened to learn of Frank's death, and the sad occasion served to remind us of how much Frank has contributed through the years to Scripps Research and to basic biomedical science in general," said Scripps Research President Richard A. Lerner. "To all of us who were fortunate enough to know and work with him, Frank was the model of the modern scientist, demonstrating equal creativity and talent both as an investigator in the laboratory and as the institute's first director."

Dixon was born in St. Paul, Minnesota on March 9, 1920. After two years of undergraduate study at the University of Minnesota, he entered medical school there and by 1943 he had received B.S., B.M., and M.D. degrees. After three years of service in the U.S. Navy, he became a research assistant at Harvard Medical School's Department of Pathology. Later, he taught for several years at Washington University Medical School in St. Louis. In 1950, at the age of 30, he became chair of the Department of Pathology at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine, a position he held for 10 years.

In 1961, he came to La Jolla with four other young scientists to establish the Department of Experimental Pathology at Scripps Clinic and Research Foundation, forming the core of what would later become The Scripps Research Institute. He led this program for two and a half decades.

Dixon's scientific work covered a wide variety of human disorders, particularly those related to immunologic processes. Early in his career he analyzed and classified tumors of the testes and related histology of pathogenesis, prognosis, and treatment. His later research in the immunological causes of kidney diseases led to his receipt of the prestigious Lasker Award.

His first efforts in immunologic research, which brought him international recognition, were devoted to the development of isotope tracer techniques for use in the study of immunologically important proteins. His methods of protein iodination served as the basis for most of the isotope tracer work done in this field. This methodology provided means for studying the dynamics of protein, i.e., antigen and antibody metabolism, and permitted in vivo immunologic studies of biological relevance.

He also explored antigen-antibody reactions and the injury elicited by them. He determined the basic factors in the production of immunologic injury by immune complexes, for example, the ratios of antigen to antibody needed, their sites of localization, the quantities involved, and the role of complement, all of which contributed to our understanding of the development of disease and its treatment.

The isotope technology developed by Dixon was well suited to the analysis of serum sickness. He made a definitive analysis of serum sickness identifying the formation of immune complexes in the circulation and their deposition in tissues. This experimental work demonstrated the pathogenicity of immune complexes and provided an explanation of the pathogenetic mechanisms underlying immune complex diseases such as glomerulonephritis, rheumatoid arthritis, SLE, vasculitis, and rheumatic fever.

Next came an exhaustive study of experimental and clinical glomerulonephritis. Dixon classified immunologic renal disease, contributing greatly to the understanding, diagnosis, and treatment of this condition.

Dixon also undertook a study of the relationship between chronic viral infections and autoimmune disease. At a time when dogma had it that antigens, particularly viruses, presented in utero or in the neonatal period would be immunologically accepted by the host, Dixon demonstrated that such viruses led to a smoldering immunologic response which led to immune complex deposits in the kidneys and blood vessels.

Dixon also studied the systemic lupus-like disease occurring spontaneously in several strains of mice. In the course of this work he was able to identify a background genetic predisposition which leads to late-life lupus and a variety of endogenous or exogenous accelerating factors that can induce early acute and fatal disease. Dixon's work also demonstrated that the single essential cellular element in the causation of the disease is the lymphoid stem cell from the bone marrow. 

Dixon was recognized as a superb mentor to young scientists, many of whom have gone on to distinguished careers in the biomedical sciences.

Over the years, Dixon received numerous nationally and internationally recognized awards for his professional efforts. These included the Honorary Fellow Award from the Royal College of Pathologists, an honorary degree from Washington University, the Jean Hamburger Award from the International Society of Nephrology, the Paul Klemperer Award from the New York Academy of Medicine, the Distinguished Service Award from the Lupus Foundation of America, the Flame of Hope Award from the Terri Gotthelf Research Institute, the Gold-Headed Cane Award of the American Association of Pathologists, the Theobald Smith Award in Medical Sciences from AAAS, the Parke-Davis Award from the American Society for Experimental Pathology, and the Lasker Award from the Albert and Mary Lasker Foundation, known as the "American Nobel Prize."  He was elected to membership in the National Academy of Sciences. He also served as president of the American Association of Immunologists and the American Association of Pathologists.

He is survived by his wife of 62 years, Marion; three children, Janet, a professor of anthropology at the University of Illinois, Frank Jr., an artist and teacher in Santa Ana, and Michael, resident director at the Playwrights' Center, Minneapolis, MN; and four grandchildren.

A memorial service will be held Saturday, February 23 at 4 PM in the Immunology Building on the Scripps Research California campus, 10550 North Torrey Pines, La Jolla, CA 92037. A reception will follow the service.


Send comments to: mikaono[at]scripps.edu





In 1961, Frank Dixon came to La Jolla with four other young scientists, forming the core of what would later become The Scripps Research Institute.