Pioneering Neuroscientist and Former Einstein Dean Dies at 92
Dominick P. Purpura, M.D., the former Marilyn and Stanley M. Katz Dean and distinguished professor emeritus at Albert Einstein College of Medicine, died on Thursday, May 16, 2019. He was 92.
Pioneering Neuroscientist and Former Einstein Dean Dies at 92.
Noted biologist Sir Peter Brian Medawar once said: “The only thing I know in the academic life which approaches the satisfaction of personal involvement in research or teaching, is the opportunity to amplify one’s own contributions by fostering an environment in which others will be able to work and learn.” This observation aptly encapsulates the influential role that Dr. Purpura played for generations of colleagues, junior faculty, and medical and graduate students throughout his illustrious career. He holds the distinction of second longest serving dean—at 22 years—of a U.S. medical school, and certainly fostered such an atmosphere at Einstein, as dean from 1984 to 2006. But that notable contribution is merely a flourish of the icing on his inspiring career “cake.”
Leader in a New Field of Study
Dominick Purpura arrived on the Einstein campus in 1967, recruited from the College of Physicians and Surgeons at Columbia, to be professor and chair of anatomy. In 1969, he was appointed scientific director of Einstein’s Rose F. Kennedy Center, which focuses on research of the causes of intellectual and developmental disabilities; he was named the center’s director in 1972. Two years later, he founded and was named professor and chair of neuroscience—a new department and field of study that he helped to establish. Under Dr. Purpura’s direction, Einstein’s Kennedy Center and neuroscience department achieved international renown for pioneering interdisciplinary research in the brain sciences. (The department at the College of Medicine has borne his name since his retirement in 2006, a tribute to his leadership and influence in neuroscience at Einstein and beyond.)
Dominick P. Purpura, M.D.
In presenting Dr. Purpura with the 1996 Presidential Award from the Society for Neuroscience, Dr. Pasko Rakic noted that Dr. Purpura “was a neuroscientist before the word neuroscience was invented to denote our multidisciplinary field.” When he was leaving Einstein in 1982, having been recruited to the deanship at Stanford University School of Medicine, a colleague observed, “Dom has shepherded and fostered and sustained the growth of neuroscience at Einstein during its critical early years… and leaves behind an interdisciplinary and multifaceted structure of people and programs that is one of the major strengths of this institution.”
His exceptional contributions span the field of neuroscience. While initial work focused on neurophysiology, his research on the origin of brain waves and on the effects of hallucinogenic agents had a great impact on research of epilepsy—which, in 1992, led the American Epilepsy Society to present him with its Clinical Science Research Award. Turning his interests to developmental neuroscience and developmental neuropathology, he used state-of-the-art neuroanatomical techniques to demonstrate that structural abnormalities of nerve cells in the brain are fundamentally involved in intellectual disabilities and other disorders of cognitive development. His pioneering work on an animal model of the rare genetic disorder Tay-Sachs disease and articles on the abnormal development of dendritic spines on cortical neurons in congenital formations offered early examples that demonstrated the power of neuroscience to address clinically important issues. He was author of more than 200 scientific papers and chapters during his distinguished career.
Dr. Purpura opted not to pursue a career in neurosurgery, focusing on research instead, because he realized he could reach more people through his scientific investigations. He also stepped into the administrative realm—first as a department chair and center director, and later as dean—so that he could help younger generations reach their potential. In addition to these roles at Einstein—and two years as dean at Stanford—Dr. Purpura served 30 years (1970 to 2000) as editor-in-chief of Brain Research, a multidisciplinary journal established in 1966 that has become the largest storehouse of information for neuroscientists worldwide.
He also held leadership roles in numerous professional organizations, including president of the Eastern Association of Encephalographs, the American Epilepsy Society, the Society for Neuroscience, and the International Brain Research Organization. He also served as member and/or chair of the Neurology A Study Section of the National Institutes of Health (NIH), and was elected to the National Academy of Sciences and its Institute of Medicine.
At the academy, he chaired the committee that produced the first Guidance for Research in Animals, which has served as the starting point for subsequent versions that have followed. He also advised Congress on issues related to neuroscience as a representative to the National Research Council, and he was one of just two scientists in the nation to receive the inaugural National Medical Research Award bestowed by the council at a White House ceremony in September, 1988. And, he received New York City’s highest honor, the Mayor’s Award for Excellence in Science and Technology in recognition of his numerous achievements and contributions.
Dr. Purpura earlier in his career.
In further recognition of his influence and leadership, he was among the candidates considered for directorship of the NIH during George H.W. Bush’s presidency. In a newsletter to the Einstein community he shared:
“On June 27th I was interviewed by Secretary Louis J. Sullivan as a candidate for the Directorship of the National Institutes of Health… Secretary Sullivan requested that I notify him within two weeks of that date as to my willingness to accept the position of Director if it was offered to me by the President. After much deliberation, I informed the Secretary on July 5th of my decision to withdraw my candidacy… I came to Einstein in 1967 to build my career and departed to Stanford 15 years later. In 1984, I enjoyed the transcendental experience of a ‘second coming’ upon my return. My first going was a lesson not a mistake. A second going, now, would suggest a serious learning disability.”
Deanship at Einstein
The College of Medicine recruited Dr. Purpura back to the Bronx as its dean in 1984. Commenting on the appointment, Dr. Norman Lamm, then president of Yeshiva University, said, “…he is a brilliant scientist, a skillful administrator, and an inspiring educator whose talents enriched Einstein for nearly 15 years. He is the right person for the right job at the right time.”
“Dr. Purpura revolutionized the way medical education was taught,” said Edward R. Burns, M.D., executive dean at Einstein—who has served in that capacity for 19 years, and worked hand in glove with Dr. Purpura through 6 of his last 22 years as dean. “He recognized that students could more successfully retrieve long-term memories of the science they learned when it was taught by great teachers who informed them broadly, rather than by research experts who focused more narrowly on their own particular lab work, as was the tradition at medical schools at the time.” This approach was adopted by medical schools across the nation.
Dr. Burns added, “Dom was universally recognized as an extraordinary teacher. Generations of neuroscientists, neurologists, and neurosurgeons achieved their own successes after experiencing Purpura’s command and love of neuroscience.
In 1985, during a period of dramatic realignments in healthcare, he coined the term “healthquake.” During that time, his vision and leadership positioned the College of Medicine as the educational hub of a network of major hospitals throughout the New York metropolitan area. This assured Einstein’s leadership position in education, clinical research, and patient care.
During the early 1990s, the College of Medicine was the first private medical school in New York City to establish a department of family medicine (now family and social medicine). Under Dr. Purpura’s guidance, Einstein also established an academic department of emergency medicine to complement the existing clinical department at its University Hospital, Montefiore Medical Center.
In the commencement address he gave in May 2005, he told the graduates, “It is no secret that Einstein graduates are among the most effective and skilled interns and residents in any program. I’ve known this for four decades and I pass it on to you to strengthen your resolve and dispel doubts of deficiencies…You have been privileged to experience the rigors of our basic science and clerkship and sub-internship programs and I predict you will be a joy to your attendings and a savior to your patients.”
He also reminded them of the advice he offered each class of entering first-year medical students as they navigated the demands of their education: “Pressure makes diamonds.” Through two decades of his vision and guidance, he took his own advice to heart, assuring that Einstein could be a Hope diamond of the Bronx—an institution that, through its teaching and research endeavors, sought to foster social justice and equity in care, while producing caring, curing physicians and competent scientists.
Life, In General
Dr. Purpura was born in Manhattan on April 2, 1927 and grew up on the Upper East Side. He served in the United States Air Force following World War II, and later earned his bachelor’s degree at Columbia College (1949) and his medical degree magna cum laude at Harvard Medical School (1953). He then completed his internship at Presbyterian Hospital and his residency in neurology at the Neurological Institute. He married Florence “Penny” Williams in 1948; she survives him, along with their four children, Craig, Kent, Keith, and Allyson, and four grandchildren.
Editor's Note: If you would like to leave a remembrance of Dr. Purpura, please visit our In Memoriam page.
Posted on: Friday, May 17, 2019