Vascular disease expert, Seymour Glagov, 1925-2008

Vascular disease expert, Seymour Glagov, 1925-2008

November 7, 2008

A pioneer in the study of cardiovascular disease, especially arteriosclerosis and its prevention, Seymour Glagov, MD, professor emeritus in the Departments of Pathology and Surgery at the University of Chicago Medical Center, died at a Chicago nursing home on Oct. 29 from complications of neurovascular disease. He was 83.

Glagov was best known for his studies on the early response of blood vessels to partial blockage, a phenomenon now known as "Glagov remodeling" or the "Glagov phenomenon." In 1987, he showed that as atherosclerotic plaque began to build up within an artery, the arterial wall would expand enough to maintain normal blood flow. Only after the blockage reached about 40 percent was the artery unable to keep pace and blood flow began to decrease.

He also, with colleague Donald Rowley, MD, professor emeritus of pathology at the University of Chicago, helped invent the gel electrode, now used universally to monitor the heart by electrocardiogram. In 1959, in order to study the relationship between heart rate measured over the course of a day and atherosclerosis, the two pathologists serendipitously discovered that a bare copper wire, embedded in a gel but not contacting the skin and held in place by a small rubber container glued to a ring of adhesive gauze, could transmit an electrical signal without "electrical noise."

"Seymour Glagov was a good partner for this study because he was not at all like me. He was slow, careful and meticulous," recalled Rowley, who shared an office with Glagov when they were new members of the faculty. "He was also remarkably gentle, physically and verbally."

"He went on to perform a long series of important studies that have helped us understand the relationships between hemodynamics, arterial stress and artery damage," added Rowley. "The quality and uniqueness of his contributions are greatly appreciated."

"Seymour Glagov was an incredible human being and a visionary who was the first to understand the atherosclerotic process and how it affects human arteries," said former colleague Christopher Zarins, MD, professor and former chief of vascular surgery at Stanford University, who worked closely with Glagov for 17 years at the University of Chicago. "He saw the big picture and understood, in a way few people did, the nature of health and vascular disease."

"Sy was the consummate researcher, inquisitive, with brilliant insight into mechanisms of health and disease," said Don P. Giddens, Ph.D., Dean of the College of Engineering at the Georgia Institute of Technology, who had worked closely with Glagov and Zarins at Chicago. "He recognized that arteries are alive and respond to mechanical forces, and his insight about arterial disease was far ahead of others. At first, some of our research was viewed skeptically, but it has now been referenced thousands of times. I will miss him, and medical science has lost a pioneer.

"Sy was a terrific guy, outgoing and engaging," added Godfrey Getz, MD, professor of pathology at the University. "He was also an outstanding teacher, very popular with the students. He was the first director of the clinical pathophysiology course in 1972, perhaps the best course at the medical school, and taught it for more than 20 years."

Born August 8, 1925, in New York City, Seymour Glagov graduated from Abraham Lincoln High School in Brooklyn, where he was president of the Scholarship Honor Society, in 1942. He earned his bachelor's degree in physics from Brooklyn College in 1946, as well as varsity letters in fencing and wrestling. He served in the United States Army from 1946 to 1947, spent a year as a physics instructor at Brooklyn College, and then began medical school at the University of Geneva, Switzerland, where he was awarded a teaching fellowship. After graduating from medical school in 1953, he returned to Brooklyn for internship at Kings County Hospital, followed by residencies in internal medicine and pathology at Beth-El Hospital.

He moved to Chicago in 1956 as a junior pathologist at Cook County Hospital. He came to the University of Chicago as a pathology resident in 1957 for additional training in vascular disease. Except for two visiting professorships at Oxford, he never left, becoming an instructor in 1958, an assistant professor in 1961, associate professor in 1966 and professor of pathology in 1970.

He directed the autopsy service at the Medical Center for more than 20 years and taught the clinical pathophysiology course, for all second year medical students, from 1971 to 1975 and again from 1978 to 1993. He added the title of professor of surgery in 1994, and became a professor emeritus of pathology in 1996 and of surgery in 1998.

The author of 275 research publications and editor of three books--Non-Invasive Imaging of Atherosclerosis, Pathobiology of the Human Atherosclerotic Plaque, and Syndromes of Atherosclerosis: Correlations of Clinical Imaging and Pathology--Glagov served on the editorial boards of several scholarly journals, and was associate editor of Arteriosclerosis and Thrombosis and the Journal of Vascular Investigation. He was also an active clinician, "highly valued," said Zarins, "by his colleagues in vascular and cardiac surgery."

As a researcher, Glagov combined his early training in physics with his clinical interest in arterial damage to become one of the world's foremost authorities on where and how plaque formed in arteries. Many of his research studies focused on the complex interplay between the hemodynamics of blood flow--how flow rates sped up or slowed down where arteries branched into two or made a sharp turn--and the gradual build up of arterial plaque.

"He saw and understood things that the rest of us missed," said Zarins. "Then he developed the tools to show us, presenting three-dimensional views of the plaque as seen within a perfused artery."

In 2003 and 2004, Zarins organized symposia in Glagov's honor at Stanford on hemodynamic and vascular remodeling.

"He was an absolutely fabulous guy, a terrific pathologist and a superb teacher, added Zarins, "and extremely popular with the students, a mentor for many. His accomplishments will live on through them."

Glagov and his wife Sylvia were "dedicated Hyde Parkers," said Getz, referring to the neighborhood that surrounds the University. They had broad intellectual interests and he was an accomplished amateur musician.

He was also active in various political causes. Glagov worked closely with SANE/FREEZE, now known as the Peace Action network, a nuclear disarmament organization that objected to widespread construction of fallout shelters because they were, "at best," as his son Hersh recalled, "a waste of money and because they had the potential to lessen opposition to nuclear war." During the Vietnam era, Glagov volunteered to work with students at nearby Quaker House once a week, where he counseled college students on medical deferments from the draft. In the mid-1970s, he lobbied to reform and update the county coroners system in Illinois, pushing for medical examiners with greater forensic skills.

His wife of nearly 55 years, Sylvia Galgov, died from ovarian cancer in 2001. Glagov is survived by his brother, Lester, of Orlando, Fla.; son, Hersh, of Oak Park, Ill.; Hersh's wife Jennifer and one grandson, Benjamin.

In lieu of flowers, contributions should be sent in his memory to the Brooklyn College Foundation. A memorial service to celebrate Glagov's life and accomplishments is being planned for later this year at the University of Chicago.