Samuel H. Wilson, M.D. was one of the founding scientists responsible for UTMB’s present robust research programs. Sadly, he died at home in Chapel Hill, NC on April 23, 2021. Sam was recruited from N.I.H. to UTMB in 1992, to join the Department of Human Biological Chemistry and Genetics (now BMB) and head the new Sealy Center for Molecular Sciences, the first trans-departmental center at UTMB, designed to stimulate and foster basic and translational research. Sam’s research at NIH, where he had been based, was focused on DNA repair; so he recruited to UTMB’s new Center a stellar staff of Principal Investigators, all interested in DNA repair mechanisms. These included Louise and Satya Prakash, Sankar Mitra, Steve Lloyd, and Ben van Houten. Thus was formed one of the world’s strongest collections of DNA repair experts. Tom Wood came aboard to head a Core Lab that gave support in molecular biology, available to any UTMB scientist. Subsequently, many UTMB investigators, from many fields and departments also joined SCMS, consistent with its original concept.
Along with Jim Lee of our department and myself, Sam shared the realization that the then-new tools being developed and improved in Molecular and Structural Biology were making possible the dream of studying the many important but previously inaccessible molecules critical for cellular function. Prior to this era, only very abundant and easily purified macromolecules were approachable. Now for the first time in human history, molecular biology allowed the identification and isolation of genes responsible for these low-concentration molecules, their expression and purification in vitro, and their study by rapidly improving physical methods. We were supported in this view by UTMB President Tom James and School of Medicine Dean George T. Bryan.
Sam had strong entrepreneurial skills, which he used to convince UTMB’s administrators to purchase an NMR instrument with an 800 MHz magnet, instantly making UTMB the only medical school in our region with such a powerful instrument. Together with our existing extensive collection of solution biochemistry instruments and the crystallography core lab we had already set up, the Sealy Center for Structural Biology was created, demonstrating UTMB’s commitment to the vision. Based on this commitment, we and other departments have been able to recruit many fine researchers.
In 1996, Sam left UTMB to become Deputy Director of the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, where he worked with distinction to the conclusion of his career. Details of his outstanding work outside UTMB can be found in his obituary (https://www.legacy.com/obituaries/newsobserver/obituary.aspx?n=samuel-h-wilson&pid=198441871&fhid=21504).
Personally, I knew Sam well from our time together at NIH, where we had collaborated on two papers and shared adventures in sailing. He always had aimed to do medically relevant basic research, thus choosing the MD as his advanced degree and taking extra training in biochemistry in lieu of clinical post-degree training. His determination and discipline were exemplified in his 10-mile daily run; these qualities carried into his approach to science. BMB, the Sealy Center for Structural Biology and Molecular Science, and UTMB owe him a great debt. I will remember fondly our deep-sea adventures.
Brad Thompson, April 30, 2021