Cardiologist, mentor and physician-scientist Morton Arnsdorf, MD, 1940-2010

Cardiologist, mentor and physician-scientist Morton Arnsdorf, MD, 1940-2010

June 11, 2010

A nationally renowned cardiologist, best known for his basic research on abnormal heart rhythms and the molecular structure of drugs to treat them, and a pioneer in applying nanotechnology to the study of biomedical problems, Morton F. Arnsdorf, MD, professor emeritus and associate vice chair of medicine and former section chief of cardiology at the University of Chicago, died in a motor vehicle accident in Indiana on June 9, 2010, on his way home from work. He was 69 years old.

An accomplished physician, researcher and teacher, Arnsdorf studied the biochemical and electrical mechanisms that regulate the heartbeat and that can cause abnormal heart rhythms such as atrial fibrillation. He was among the first to define how cell-cell communications control the heartbeat, and to show the complex ways that changes in active and passive electrical properties of the heart lead to arrhythmias. His work led to a basic understanding of the electrophysiologic actions of antiarrhythmic drugs used to treat life-threatening heart rhythms like ventricular tachycardia.

He also led a team of researchers that made significant advances in understanding the risk of heart disease in women, which brought him the American Heart Association's Women in Cardiology Mentoring Award.

More recently, he and colleagues applied nanotechnology to a variety of biomedical problems. In the early 1990s, they began using a new tool, atomic force microscopy, to study the molecular connections known as gap junctions between adjoining heart muscle cells, one of the first applications of this technology to biological problems.

Arnsdorf's team was the first to report what they called "nanodissection," using a probe a few atoms thick to scrape off part of the surface of a cell to study the workings of ion channels embedded in the cell wall. Arnsdorf and a colleague later patented the use of biospecific probes with the nanoscale scope. These were attached to the probe and designed to interact with a specific protein or microscopic structure on a biological specimen.

His peers recognized these accomplishments by electing him a master of the American College of Cardiology, an honor bestowed on fewer than 60 cardiologists in the United States.

"Mort Arnsdorf was a key player in cardiology for more than three decades," said colleague Jafar Al-Sadir, MD, professor of medicine. "He was just a remarkable guy, a close friend, a consistently decent man, and a wonderful doctor, scientist and teacher. A lot of the leading people in the field owe much of their success to him, his ability to help scholars in training find their niche and make the connections that helped launch their careers."

"Mort started his research career in my lab," recalled colleague Rory Childers, MD, professor of medicine at the University of Chicago. "As a resident, he had been allotted three contiguous months for research. In this short time he formulated and completed a project, explaining the connections between elevated thyroid hormone and atrial fibrillation, which he published in a leading journal, Circulation Research. He never looked back after that."

"He was also good fun," Childers added. "He had a tremendous sense of humor, a lot of good friends and a calm, steady personality. His ability to see both sides and moderate a dispute made him a terrific chief of cardiology, a position he held for nine years."

Although a skilled moderator, Arnsdorf was deeply moral and never afraid to "say what needed to be said, speaking truth to power," said Stephen Archer, MD, the University's current chief of cardiology. "He took a stand. If he felt an idea or a project conflicted with the University's core missions or threatened some part of patient care or the training program, he could be quite direct and forceful and he wasn't afraid of the consequences."

"Mort was a leader in cardiology nationally and in the Midwest," Archer added, "yet humble despite the fact that he held many important leadership roles. When it came to academic medicine in America, Mort knew everyone and was widely respected. I respected him tremendously and he was beloved by the cardiology trainees and faculty and his many patients."

Born August 7, 1940, in Chicago, the son of a primary care doctor, Morton Frank Arnsdorf earned his bachelor's degree magna cum laude from Harvard University in 1962 and his medical degree from Columbia University's College of Physicians and Surgeons in 1966. He came back to Chicago for his residency training at the University of Chicago Hospitals from 1966 to 1969, and then completed a two-year cardiology fellowship at Columbia-Presbyterian Medical Center in New York. From 1971 to 1973 he served in the United States Air Force, rising to the rank of major and serving as chief of cardiology at the Air Force hospital in Elmendorf, Alaska.

He came to Chicago as an assistant professor of medicine in 1973 and never left. He was promoted to associate professor in 1979 and to professor in 1983. He became chief of cardiology in 1981 and held the role until 1990. During this period the section gained strength and enhanced its national reputation for research and for training future leaders. He took on the role of vice chair for appointments and promotions in 2004 and maintained that role despite taking on emeritus status and cutting back to half time in 2008.

A prolific researcher, Arnsdorf authored or co-authored more than 100 articles in scientific and clinical journals. He was a co-editor of UptoDate in Cardiology, a widely consulted, continuously updated electronic database of current practices in cardiac care. He also served on the editorial boards of many research publications, including Circulation Research, where he was an associate editor for five years, the Journal of the American College of Cardiology, the Journal of Laboratory and Clinical Medicine, and others.

Arnsdorf held several prestigious national and regional positions. He served on the American College of Cardiology's board of governors and as a trustee and secretary of the organization. He was president of the ACC's Illinois chapter from 1991 to 1994. He was on the board of directors of the American Heart Association and served as president of the AHA's Chicago chapter. He was a founding member of the Association of Professors of Cardiology and president of the Cardiac Electrophysiology Society.

He also received multiple honors including Master of the American College of Cardiology, the ACC's Distinguished Fellow Award, and the AHA's Women in Cardiology Mentoring Award. Most recently, he received the University of Chicago Department of Medicine's Distinguished Service Award.

He wore those honors lightly, said his wife, Rosemary Crowley. "He was completely unassuming, no arrogance, no self-promotion." He was much prouder of learning, late in life, to play Hawaiian slack-key guitar. "He was most proud," she said, "of the people he had mentored."

"There was this bit of a Galahad about him," Crowley said, "a champion of the underdog. He could sense who might be struggling with a project, and how to help them focus. This often led to something outstanding. Many of his former students are now quite successful academic physicians."

Crowley points out that, no underdog, she picked him. A social worker and hospice director at the University of Chicago Medical Center, she often worked with Arnsdorf to help his patients with their non-clinical needs. Both were divorced, so she called and asked him out. It worked. They began dating in 1980 and married in 1986. He soon took on the de facto role of father to her four children: Chris, Colin and Timothy Crowley and Jeanne Crowley Atkinson, and grandfather to their five children: Will Bernstein, Liam Crowley, Kate Atkinson, Harry Atkinson and Declan Crowley.

Although the burial will be private, the family is planning a celebration of Arnsdorf's life at 1 p.m. on Wed., June 23, at St Anne of the Dunes Church, 433 W. Golfwood Road, near their home in Beverly Shores, Indiana. The University of Chicago memorial service will be held on September 15 at Rockefeller Chapel at 12 p.m.