Philip Hoffmann, PhD, 1936-2006

Philip Hoffmann, PhD, 1936-2006

July 27, 2006

A respected neuropharmacologist and a revered teacher, Philip C. Hoffmann, PhD, professor emeritus in the department of neurobiology, pharmacology and physiology at the University of Chicago, died Friday, July 21, at the University of Chicago's Bernard Mitchell Hospital after a long battle with prostate cancer. He was 70.

In collaboration with colleagues Alfred Heller and Beatrice Garber, Hoffmann spent more than two decades studying how the nerve cells that communicate via the chemical messenger dopamine connect with one another in the developing brain. The three scientists assembled small aggregates of nerve cells, known informally as "mini-brains," and used them to study how specific groups of neurons in the brain find each other and establish connections. They subsequently used these clusters of neurons to study how various drugs of abuse, such as methamphetamine, could disrupt that process and damage those connections.

Hoffmann was also known on campus as a devoted and inspirational pharmacology teacher who won many awards for his work with students in the undergraduate college of the University of Chicago and with graduate and medical students. He taught the basic pharmacology course to second-year medical students for 30 years.

"He was a fantastic person," said Heller, professor of neurobiology, pharmacology and physiology and former chairman of the department. "He was respected for his broad knowledge and his theoretical approach to the science. But he was also known as an outstanding teacher. He was totally open to his students, and he spent an enormous amount of time preparing for each class."

"Philip was a splendid person," said Eugene Goldwasser, the Alice Hogge and Arthur A. Baer professor emeritus of biochemistry and molecular biology at the University of Chicago. "He began his career as a creative and meticulous researcher, but he became more and more involved in teaching, to which he was absolutely devoted. He never shortchanged his students, and many of them kept in contact with him for years after they had finished his class and moved on to other institutions."

Philip Craig Hoffmann was born June 18, 1936, in Evanston, Illinois. His father was a naval engineer, and the family moved often as he grew up. He attended high school in Utah and South Carolina before enrolling in 1953 at the University of Chicago, where he spent most of his career.

He completed a bachelor of science degree in 1957, spent one year in graduate study at the University of California at Berkeley, then returned to Chicago, where he earned his PhD in pharmacology in 1962. After a year of post-doctoral research in Germany and Sweden, he joined the faculty at the University of Chicago in 1963 as an instructor in pharmacology.

Hoffmann rose steadily, becoming an assistant professor in 1966, an associate professor in 1971 and a professor in 1980. He took on additional teaching and administrative duties, serving as senior adviser, and later collegiate master, for teaching biological sciences to undergraduate students. He received the university's coveted Quantrell award for excellence in undergraduate teaching in 1971, the basic science teaching award from the Pritzker School of Medicine in 1977, 1982 and 1984, and the Amoco Foundation award in 1994 for distinguished contributions to undergraduate teaching.

One of his undergraduate students, Guy Le Breton, was inspired by Hoffmann's course to become a pharmacology major. "The U of C was one of only two universities that granted bachelor's degrees in pharmacology," Le Breton said. Later he worked in Hoffmann's lab and returned to graduate school at Chicago, where he got his PhD "Phil stuck his neck out for me. He was like a surrogate father. When my son Phillip was born, of course I had him in mind when we chose the name." Le Breton is now a professor of pharmacology at the University of Illinois at Chicago.

"Philip was a superb teacher," said Donald Steiner, the A.N. Pritzker professor of biochemistry and molecular biology, professor of medicine and a Howard Hughes Medical Institute investigator at the university. "He was always enormously helpful, extremely well informed and had a wide range of interests. He retained the ability to connect with students and to keep his material fresh despite teaching the same course for three decades." By the time Hoffmann retired, Steiner said, "the field had become so specialized it was difficult to find anyone who could replace him."

In 1999, Hoffmann was appointed chair of the university's newly created council on teaching, a faculty advisory board. "Good teaching doesn't just happen," he said in a 1999 interview, "it has to be nurtured."

Hoffmann emphasized teaching by discussion, rather than by lecture. "Some of my colleagues may not agree with that as an appropriate pedagogical method for the sciences," he said, noting that some prefer to convey facts in the most direct manner. "But I feel very strongly that--particularly at the Common Core level--students need to know how we arrive at those tentative facts. The only way to do that is to discuss the nature of the evidence."

Even after he formally retired, Hoffmann continued to teach in the part-time Master of Liberal Arts program, where his classes focused on the social and political implications of pharmacology. In 2002 he received the university's Gold Key award for service to the division of biological sciences and the university. Michael Goode, a student in the MLA program, became an expert in the neurobiological and physiological aspects of stage fright, thanks to Hoffmann's guidance. Said Goode, "I'd never have this career as a stage-fright consultant without him. He was a real mentor--one of those brilliant, bright lights who let me have free rein to research and discover."

Despite his considerable teaching load, Hoffmann remained active in the laboratory, publishing more than 50 journal articles, primarily on the development and aggregation of dopaminergic neurons and the neurotoxicity of amphetamines. He translated a popular German textbook on pharmacology into English in 1973. He also served for many years on the editorial board of the Journal of Pharmacology and Experimental Therapeutics and on study sections on pharmacology and on biomedical sciences for the National Institutes of Health.

Much more than a pharmacologist, Hoffmann was a lifelong devotee and supporter of opera, theater, music and architecture, not to mention history and baseball. "In our household, he was the go-to guy for all the sports and history crossword puzzle clues," said Chris Lonn, Hoffmann's partner of 34 years, together with whom he spent much of his retirement at their Michigan summer home and traveling with the Chicago Architecture Foundation.

In addition to his partner, Hoffmann is survived by his brother Bob Hoffmann of Bethesda, Maryland, and many other relatives. A memorial service on the University of Chicago campus is planned for the first week of October.