NIDDK Director Gorden Steps Down, Returns to Laboratory
By Joan Chamberlain
After 13 years as NIDDK director, Dr. Phillip Gorden is looking forward to trading his suit jacket for a lab coat. A director whose down-to-earth wisdom and humane leadership steered the institute through a period of rapid change, he is moving back to the Clinical Center to revisit the scientific questions that first intrigued him years ago. As chief of the section on clinical and cellular biology in the NIDDK Diabetes Branch, he is resuming his research in disorders of the insulin receptor, insulin secretion and severe insulin resistance. "These rare disorders have a great deal to teach us about the more common forms of diabetes," he says.
On a recent fall weekend, family, friends and colleagues gathered to honor this "man for all seasons," as fellow researcher and former NIDDK scientific director Dr. Jesse Roth described Gorden. A scientific symposium, "The Human Face of Science," paid tribute to Gorden's research contributions, which shed light on topics that span the field of endocrinology: the mechanisms of insulin action, receptor-mediated endocytosis, the pathophysiology and epidemiology of type 2 diabetes, insulin resistance and obesity, islet cell defects in type 2 diabetes, prevention and treatment of diabetes and its complications, hormonal resistance states and multiple endocrine neoplasia.
Gorden has combined his commitment to basic research with a dedication to applying state-of-the-art knowledge to ease human suffering. Under his leadership, NIDDK preserved the integrity of basic research during a time of fiscal constraint while broadening support for clinical trials in the wide range of disease areas covered by the NIDDK research mission. The first of those major trials, the Diabetes Complications and Control Trial, clearly showed the importance of strict glucose control in delaying the complications of diabetes and marked a turning point in treatment of the disease.
Gorden attributes much of his success to the support of his family and his upbringing in Baldwyn, Miss. He learned the value of hard work and sacrifice from his father Morris, who emigrated as a child from the Ukraine in 1921. A country doctor neighbor, paid with a cord of wood when cash was short, inspired Gorden to become a physician. A generation later, Gorden's own love of medicine and learning inspired his sons Jed and Lee to become doctors.
After receiving his M.D. from Vanderbilt University and completing his internship and residency at Yale University in 1964, Gorden began his biomedical research career at Yale as a Public Health Service clinical fellow and research fellow in metabolism. From 1976 to 1978, he was visiting professor at the University of Geneva School of Medicine. Before becoming NIDDK director, he served as chief of the section on clinical and cellular biology in the NIDDK Diabetes Branch, chief of the Diabetes Branch, and clinical director in the institute's Division of Intramural Research.
"This hasn't been an 'I' career it's been a 'we' career," Gorden says of his partnership with his wife Vivian. At their Bethesda home, the Gordens hosted many Friday night dinners fondly recalled by colleagues as a forum that nurtured enduring friendships and the lively exchange of scientific ideas.
Those who know him speak often of Gorden's compassion and humanity. "It was remarkable to be there on clinical rounds with Phil, who would go to the bedside with the kind of insight into what patients needed and what we were supposed to be doing that was rarely seen at NIH," recalled Dr. C. Ronald Kahn, head of Harvard's Joslin Diabetes Center, who knew Gorden when the two were young investigators in the Clinical Center.
"Phil is endowed with exceptional humane qualities: generosity, open and broadmindedness, a never-failing capacity to listen and to help, and a distance from the sensationalism and superficiality that at times invade medicine and science," added Dr. Pierre Freychet, scientist emeritus at France's University of Nice, who met Gorden in 1969 while working in the Diabetes Branch.
"Medicine without science would be largely useless, yet science has got to be driven by humanity or it won't be translatable," says Gorden. "Both have to work together, and that's really a challenge for science, for NIH and for society. Healing is a much bigger thing than prescribing some very modern technology to bring to bear on a particular disorder."
Gorden's career is distinguished by outstanding achievements in training research scientists and strengthening mechanisms for research training and career development. He mentored many young investigators who sought to emulate his astute clinician's skill and practical approach to problem solving. Dr. Simeon Taylor, now chief of the Diabetes Branch, was one of them: "Phil has been an outstanding role model for physician scientists and a supportive mentor to his colleagues. His main goal was always to cure sick people and to ease suffering when cure wasn't possible. For Phil, the commitment to medical research comes from being a compassionate physician helping his patient."
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