For more than half a century, Richard L. Landau was a demanding professor of medicine, performing path-breaking research into the effects of human hormones and treatment of hormone-related diseases, while building a world-renowned endocrinology program at the University of Chicago.
Landau died Nov. 3 at Montgomery Place, an assisted living facility in Hyde Park. He was 99.
“He was a towering intellect, famously irascible, an exacting teacher, a rigorous scientist and a man of impeccable ethics,” said his son-in-law, David Axelrod, director of the Institute of Politics. “He was incredibly dedicated to the University, to medical research and the care of patients. And no one loved a good argument more or tolerated pretension or phoniness less.”
Widely known for his fundamental work on the effects of hormones on health and disease, Landau was an important figure in the development of modern endocrinology. For four decades, he and his colleagues characterized the metabolic effects of hormones, such as testosterone, progesterone, aldosterone and estrogen, and developed life-saving therapies.
“His work led to drugs that are still used today to treat high blood pressure and heart failure,” said Edward Ehrlich, a professor emeritus at the University of Wisconsin, noted endocrinologist and former UChicago colleague.
But Landau will be best remembered for building a nascent endocrinology program into one of the world’s best by recruiting young, talented physician-scientists—serving as their benevolent but demanding mentor, and helping them establish themselves as national leaders in the field.
“Richard Landau was an outstanding physician and scientist,” said Kenneth Polonsky, dean of the Biological Sciences Division and the Pritzker School of Medicine and executive vice president for medical affairs at the University of Chicago. “But perhaps his greatest contribution was his relentless and quite successful efforts, over several decades, to build a world-class program in endocrinology.”
“In the ’40s, he was one of only three endocrine specialists at the University,” said Samuel Refetoff, professor of medicine at the University. “Over the next three decades, he carefully built the endocrine section into one of the top five programs in the nation, with world-renowned faculty in diabetes, thyroid, adrenal and pituitary disorders.”
Landau eventually gave up his own lab to concentrate on taking care of patients and building the endocrinology section, said Leslie De Groot, professor emeritus of medicine at the University of Chicago, who was attracted to the program by Landau. “He was highly successful in recruiting the best people and enabling them to do first-rate work. He was a good and unselfish leader.”
“I have always had great admiration for Richard,” said diabetes specialist Arthur Rubenstein, who was hired by Landau in 1967 and went on to become chairman of medicine at the University of Chicago and then dean of the University of Pennsylvania’s medical school. “He was a wonderful role model, charismatic, irreverent and down to earth. He could make junior colleagues, like his new recruits, feel at home. At the same time, he could bring important people down to size.”
A lifelong pursuit
Inspired by Paul de Kruif’s classic book, Microbe Hunters, Landau resolved at a young age to pursue a career in medicine.
Upon his graduation from Washington University in St. Louis in 1940, Landau came to the University of Chicago for a three-year residency that would lead to a lifelong association. During this period, he began working in the laboratory of endocrine specialist Allan Kenyon, who demonstrated the connections between testosterone and muscle growth.
After serving as a physician in World War II’s Pacific theater, and upon his discharge with the rank of captain in 1946, Landau returned to the University of Chicago as an instructor in medicine. He was promoted to assistant professor in 1948, associate professor in 1952 and professor in 1959.
He was named program director of the University’s Clinical Research Center in 1961 and associate chairman of medicine in 1962. In 1966, he officially became chief of the endocrinology section.
Concerned about the ethical issues posed by clinical research, Landau also was appointed as the first chairman of the medical center’s Institutional Review Board—the group that monitors all research involving human subjects—a position he held for many years.
Despite his success at recruiting and retaining outstanding investigators, Landau was not someone who immediately impressed sensitive acquaintances as a natural team builder. Colleagues recall him as forceful, difficult—sometimes abrasive. Yet, he consistently developed productive relationships and commanded enduring admiration and loyalty from his team.
“He could be quite opinionated,” Refetoff said. “As a section chief, he was simultaneously autocratic and democratic. He told you what he thought in a straightforward way. He tried to convince you. He would listen carefully to your response. Then he would decide.”
Landau published more than 90 papers and served as a member of the editorial board at the Journal of the American Medical Association. He also served as editor of Perspectives in Biology and Medicine, a journal, published by the University of Chicago and managed for 28 years by his wife Claire. (It is now based at Johns Hopkins University).
After closing his research laboratory, he continued to teach, speak and write. His later publications were primarily review articles, editorials and opinion pieces—some biting, some amusing, but always thoughtful.
In 1985, he was awarded the Gold Key Award for outstanding and loyal service to the University. He retired in 1987, but he continued to meet weekly with his colleagues in the endocrine section well into his 90s until his health began failing.
Landau’s wife, Claire, died in 2002. Two sons, Thomas and James, also preceded him in death. He is survived by two daughters, Susan Axelrod (and her husband David) and Kay Fricke (and her husband Karl); five grandchildren and one great-granddaughter.
Memorial donations may be made online to the Museum of Science and Industry to support science teacher professional development courses or mailed to M. Fishback, 5700 South Lake Shore Dr., Chicago, IL 60637.
A memorial service will be held at a later date.