Columbia University Medical Center

Cumc Mourns Isidore “Izzy” Edelman

Isidore S. Edelman, the Robert Wood Johnson Jr. Professor Emeritus of Biochemistry and Molecular Biophysics at Columbia University Medical Center’s College of Physicians & Surgeons died Sunday, November 21. Born July 24, 1920 in Brooklyn, New York, Dr. Edelman attended Brooklyn College (1937-1939) and earned a BA in Chemistry from Indiana University in 1941. He received his medical degree from Indiana University School of Medicine in 1944.

From 1945 through 1947, “Izzy,” as he was universally known, served in the Medical Corps of the US Army. He served as captain assigned to the psychiatric service, where he conducted one of the earliest quality assurance surveys. In 1952, he joined the University of California School of Medicine, San Francisco, as assistant professor. In 1967 he was named the Samuel Neider Research Professor of Medicine. His work in California focused on the mechanism by which body fluids and electrolytes are regulated. Dr. Edelman’s important investigations led to the discovery of sodium potassium ATPase, the molecule that is the major transporter of ions across the cell membrane. The molecule maintains the intracellular salt concentration critical for sustaining life.

Izzy Edelman joined Columbia University Medical Center’s College of Physicians & Surgeons (P&S) in 1978 as Chairman of Biochemistry, and he made landmark contributions during his 26 year tenure at Columbia.

Guided by scientific prescience, unlimited energy and lofty goals, he single handedly built the department into one of the premier biochemistry departments in the world. He had a genius for recognizing and recruiting young talent and attracted some of the country’s brightest physicians to Columbia’s Biochemistry department. He appointed Richard Axel, MD, who recently won the Nobel Prize for his groundbreaking research in how mammals can detect and distinguish from over 10,000 smells as Professor of Biochemistry ( Dr. Axel was also a professor in Columbia’s Pathology department at that time).

In 1991, after becoming professor emeritus, he began a new undertaking with the founding of the Columbia Geonome Center, which he directed until 2000. Dr. Edelman had the foresight to understand the great impact that the human genome project would have on medical research. Under his leadership, the Columbia Geonome Center broadened its goals to include sequencing, gene discovery and technology development. He led Columbia in enhancing its commitments to computation in biology so that the massive genomic work could be handled in integrated, sensible ways.

A notable scientist and valued counselor, Dr. Edelman’s leadership advanced Columbia’s academic and scientific enterprise in so many ways. He received numerous national and international honors, including membership in the National Academy of Sciences, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and the Institute of Medicine, primarily because of his scholarly studies of great medical importance. Dr. Edelman was recently awarded the Robert H. Williams Distinguished Leadership Award by the Endocrine Society. The award recognized Dr. Edelman’s “outstanding scholarship, his landmark contributions in establishing the foundations of steroid hormone action, and his leadership role in bridging the disciplines of biophysics, biochemistry, endocrinology, and molecular biology.”

His legacy as a scientist, leader, and adviser will set a high standard for coming generations. We extend our sympathies to his wife and children.