Maurice Sokolow, MD, pioneer in study of hypertension, dies

Maurice Sokolow, MD, a cardiologist and an international expert in hypertension, died Thursday of cancer at UCSF Medical Center in San Francisco.  He was 91 years old.

“Sokolow was a pioneer in the field of hypertension, including the effects of stress on blood pressure,” said Lee Goldman, MD, MPH, UCSF chair of the department of medicine and professor of medicine, “and he was a beloved member of the UCSF community since 1936.”

Sokolow earned a reputation as a highly creative researcher and teacher in the field of cardiology, and became a founding member of the UCSF Cardiovascular Research Institute, merging clinical cardiology with academic and research work during the 1950s.
Sokolow was born in New York.  His family moved to California, but at age six, his mother died.  His father was unable to care for Sokolow and his sister, so they were placed in an orphanage for seven years.  Sokolow’s sister, Josephine Osborne, helped Sokolow go to the University of California, Los Angeles and later to Berkeley for an undergraduate degree.  The path to medical school at UCSF was more difficult:  Sokolow earned his way by living at nearby Laguna Honda Hospital and working at night and was awarded the Gold Headed Cane, the honor bestowed upon the top graduating medical student. Sokolow received an MD from UCSF in 1936.

During World War II, Sokolow was stationed on a hospital ship in Fiji. While there, he learned about tropical disease in order to treat his patients. According to his family, he became the hospital photographer with no previous expertise in the area.  He volunteered to take photos, and wired his wife Ethel to send him a camera with complete instructions so that he could learn on the job.  He later passed his love of photography on to all of his children.

During the 1950s, Sokolow was head of the hypertension section at San Francisco General Hospital Medical Center.  He designed and constructed an ambulatory device to show that blood pressure varied throughout the day.  His study also confirmed that blood pressures taken in the clinic setting tended to be higher than ambulatory pressures for the majority of patients.  This portable blood pressure recorder provided a major role in hypertension studies throughout the next decades, including the discovery of “white coat” hypertension, a persistently elevated clinical blood pressure when the patient was being seen by a doctor, and a normal pressure at other times.

According to Jay Nadel, MD, UCSF professor of pulmonary medicine, Sokolow was a rare person.  “He was a highly creative clinical researcher who evolved from humble beginnings to become one of the world’s greatest cardiologists.  It was Soke’s genius to be a part of the group that married clinical medicine to academic and basic research in cardiology.”

“And Soke was not only a teacher, but he loved the students and brought them into both the clinical and academic worlds,” Nadel explained.  A big man physically, Nadel recalled, Sokolow was also big intellectually, and loved words and quoting epic authors. “He once told me that Cicero had said ‘Give me a young man in whom there is something of the old and an old man with something of the young for the best of all worlds’,” Nadel said.

Sokolow was also known for his legendary teaching and active leadership in the American Heart Association and for writing more than 160 medical publications, including the textbook Clinical Cardiology which was translated into seven languages. The book was co-authored with Melvin D. Cheitlin, MD, and Malcolm McIlroy, MD, and is in its 6th edition.  When the book was first published, Sokolow inscribed “Now we made it!” to his sister to share the joy of this major accomplishment with her.

Sokolow affected the lives of numerous scholars through mentorship, training and making them a part of his life.  Hilliard Katz, MD, UCSF clinical professor of cardiology and one of his former students, became a lifelong friend.  Recently, when Katz was asked about how Sokolow influenced him, he said “He was one of the foremost educators and teachers at UCSF, and he has been known nationally and internationally for his research on electrocardiography.  I met him as a student before World War II and after the war he became my mentor.  He was a unique gentleman, a fine teacher and a great conversationalist who could draw other people out.  From my standpoint, he had a rich, rewarding life with many friends, much traveling—- and even some time for fly-fishing.”

Sokolow is survived by two of his three daughters and their families:  Gail and husband Marc Goldyne, MD, and their children Serena and Avi; Anne and her husband Peter Levine, MD, and their children Joshua and Sara.  Sokolow’s wife Ethel Schwabacher Sokolow and their middle daughter Jane both died of cancer 32 years ago.  Sokolow was also pre-deceased by Jean Jacobs, his companion of 25 years.

Funeral and burial services for Sokolow were private.  Friends are invited to attend a memorial service to be held at UCSF at a time and date to be announced. 

The family requests that, in lieu of flowers, donations be made to the “Dr. Maurice Sokolow Memorial Fund for Hypertension” (make donation payable to UCSF Regents and note “Sokolow Fund for Hypertension”.  Send to Martha Hooven ,UCSF Department of Medicine, UCSF-Box 0120, San Francisco, CA 94143-0120.  Phone:  (415) 476-0938.