James Neel, father of modern human genetics, died Feb. 1

February 1, 2000

EDITORS: A 300 dpi .JPG photo of Dr. James Neel is available for electronic download at: http://www.umich.edu/~newsinfo/Photos/jneel.jpg

ANN ARBOR—James Van Gundia Neel, M.D., Ph.D., professor emeritus of human genetics and internal medicine at the University of Michigan, died of cancer on Feb. 1 at his home here. He was 84 years old.

An internationally renowned scientist, Neel was a pioneer in the study of human genetics and one of the first to foresee its importance in the diagnosis and treatment of medical conditions. During his 39-year career in the U-M Medical School, Neel established one of the first clinics to evaluate and counsel people with hereditary diseases, as well as the first academic department of human genetics in the United States.

Neel was the first scientist to recognize the genetic basis for sickle cell anemia. He conducted an extensive study on the aftereffects of atomic radiation on survivors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and their children. During the 1960s, he proposed the “thrifty gene” hypothesis, which states that genes associated with common modern diseases like diabetes, hypertension and obesity are part of the human gene pool, because they helped our early ancestors survive when calories and salt were less abundant. Neel also was widely known for his studies of the genetic consequences of consanguineous marriage, the timing of human migration into North America and the genetic characteristics of isolated tribes in the Amazon rain forest.

Neel’s most recent research focused on severe chromosomal damage in what he named “rogue cells,” which he first identified in his studies of the Yanomama tribe in the Amazon and Japanese populations. Neel suggested that the origins of this chromosomal damage could be attributed to infection with human Polyomaviruses. (more)

“Jim Neel was one of the most distinguished faculty in the 150-year history of this medical school,” said Allen S. Lichter, M.D., dean of the U-M Medical School. “He was a true visionary in how genetics would one day be used, not only to determine the cause of disease, but also to treat it. He trained some of the finest minds in the field and his international reputation was impeccable.”

“Dr. Neel was the father of the field of human genetics. He was the first to introduce a long list of bedrock principles, which we now take for granted,” said Francis S. Collins, M.D., Ph.D., director of the National Human Genome Research Institute, who is on leave from the U-M Medical School. “He made a habit of being ahead of his time. Today, the Human Genome Project and associated advances in genetics are making it possible to test many of his hypotheses. There are growing signs that he was right on target.”

Neel was born on
Neel joined the U-M faculty in 1946 as an assistant geneticist in the Laboratory of Vertebrate Biology. From late 1946 to 1947, he served in the Army Medical Corps and directed field studies for the Atomic Bomb Casualty Commission of the National Research Council. In 1948, he returned to the U-M to direct the Institute of Human Biology’s Heredity Clinic. Neel established the U-M Medical School’s Department of Human Genetics in 1956, which he chaired for 25 years. He was named the Lee R. Dice University Professor of Human Genetics in 1966—a position he held until his retirement on
“Jim Neel’s contributions to the studies of populations throughout the world and in patients right here in Michigan are seminal and legendary,” said Gilbert S. Omenn, M.D., Ph.D., U-M executive vice president for medical affairs. “He has been one of our most prominent faculty members and a great presence on this campus for more than five decades. He was completing additional collaborative research up to the time of his death, with work that will continue for several years.”

“Not only was James Neel a pioneer in human and medical genetics, he always kept foremost the physician’s perspective,” said Thomas D. Gelehrter, M.D., professor and chair of the U-M Medical School’s Department of Human Genetics. “He had a keen sensitivity to the societal implications of the knowledge he discovered. He truly embodied the title of his remarkable book, ‘Physician to the Gene Pool.'”

“Dr. Neel was a great figure and thinker in genetic research,” said Stefan S. Fajans, M.D., U-M professor emeritus of internal medicine. “He made many important scientific discoveries and proposed challenging hypotheses, which are still being pursued by other investigators four decades later. He had a tremendous influence on generations of geneticists and other scientists.”

Neel’s many awards and honors include the Albert Lasker Award, election to the National Academy of Sciences, the Allen Award from the American Society of Human Genetics, the Henry Russel Award from the U-M, the National Medal of Science, the Smithsonian Institution Medal, the Wadsworth Distinguished Service Award from the New York State Department of Health, the Michigan Scientist-of-the-Year Award from the Michigan State Legislature, and the March of Dimes/Colonel Harlan Sanders Award.

He is survived by his wife, Priscilla (Baxter) Neel, of Ann Arbor; a daughter, Frances Neel, of Ann Arbor; and two sons, James V. (Lynn) Neel of Santa Rosa, Calif., and Alexander (Robin) Neel of Dodge City, Kan. Additional survivors include a granddaughter, Nicole London; two grandsons, Justin and Gregory Neel; and a sister, Mary Ann Blackwood of Atlanta, Ga.

A memorial service will be scheduled at a later date. Memorial contributions can be made to the James V. Neel Fund at the U-M, which will be used to support an annual fellowship and an annual lectureship in the Department of Human Genetics. Contributions should be sent to: U-M Medical School, Department of Human Genetics, Box 0618, 4708 Medical Science II, Ann Arbor, MI 48109-0618.