Leading UCSF neuroendocrinologist and medical leader dies

By Jennifer O'Brien

William Francis Ganong, MD

William Francis Ganong, MD, who built the Department of Physiology at the University of California, San Francisco, into one of the leading departments of its kind in the United States, died on Dec. 23, at age 83.

Ganong chaired the department from 1970 to 1987, during which time he developed a basic research and clinical program that was ranked the top physiology department in the country for at least a decade by the National Academy of Sciences.

The department was strong in several disciplines under his leadership, but saw particular growth in the neurosciences. He recruited numerous faculty who today are among the world’s premier neuroscientists.

“This was an extremely exciting time in the development of the department and the neurosciences,” says Michael Stryker, PhD, UCSF professor of physiology. “When Fran was chair, the fundamental basic science of many of the classic problems of physiology had been worked out. But the fundamental basic science of the nervous system was still a mystery.

“He saw a tremendous opportunity to fuel this field.” The neuroscientists he recruited are pioneers in the study of brain development, the nature of learning and memory, addiction, chronic pain and chronic stress.

Ganong’s vision extended beyond the neurosciences, however, says Stryker, to include all aspects of physiology, which is the study of the way in which the body functions, at the level of organs, cells and molecules. He recruited top scientists and funded basic research and clinical-research programs in endocrinology, respiratory medicine and cardiology.

A neuroendocrinology researcher in his own right, Ganong published more than 200 scientific publications. He was co-discoverer of the Lown-Ganong-Levine syndrome, an electrical abnormality of the heart. His research focused on the mechanisms by which the brain controls several different hormones, particularly those regulating body fluids and nutrients, reproduction, blood pressure and responses to stress.

In 1996, reflecting on the evolution of neuroendocrinology, he noted that, during his training, he had encountered the “heretical idea that the brain regulated secretions of the pituitary gland.” The “brain and body” were taught separately in the medical school curriculum, he explained, and neuroendocrinology “did not exist as a discipline.”

Ganong was the author of the landmark textbook “Review of Medical Physiology.” The 22nd edition of the textbook was published in 2005, and has been translated into 18 foreign languages.

“It is the most widely read textbook of physiology ever written,” says neuroscientist Zach Hall, PhD, who was recruited to UCSF by Ganong, and ultimately became chair of the Department of Physiology. “Generations of medical students are grateful to Ganong’s text for guiding them through the intricacies of human physiology.” Hall subsequently became director of the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke, then executive vice chancellor of UCSF. Later, he was named the first president of the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine.

A magna cum laude graduate of Harvard Medical School, Ganong believed medical students needed to understand the basic science that underlies clinical medicine. As department chair, he weighed the capacity to teach heavily in faculty recruitment.

He also took it to heart in his own career. Somewhat uniquely, says Stryker, who also went on to become chair of the department, rather than teaching just one specialty, as most faculty did then and today, he taught the full spectrum of physiology—endocrinology, respiratory medicine, cardiology and neuroscience.

During his chairmanship, Ganong was awarded an endowed chair, the Jack D. and DeLoris Lange Chair in Physiology. In 1996, his contributions to UCSF were honored by the creation of an endowed chair in his name.

Ganong’s career path was redirected into medicine by World War II and the US Army. Born July 6, 1924, in Northampton, Mass., he attended Northampton public schools, and in the fall of 1941, entered Harvard College, planning to become a lawyer. After the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, he was drafted to the infantry and subsequently assigned to premedical studies and then to medical school.

When World War II ended, he returned to Harvard where he received his BA degree cum laude, and in 1949, his MD. After internship, residency training and postdoctoral training in internal medicine and surgery, he was drafted again and spent 18 months as a medical officer in Japan and Korea, where he and six other medical officers set up a MASH unit, the Hemorrhagic Fever Center.

In 1955, Ganong was recruited to the University of California, where he took an appointment as assistant professor of physiology at the University of California, Berkeley, with the understanding that he would then move to UCSF to help set up a basic research program in physiology. In 1958, he made that move.

He gave numerous lectures in the United States and abroad, and received various other honors, including the Boylston Prize, the Berthold Metal and the Distinguished Education Award of the Endocrine Society. Ganong received honorary doctoral degrees from the Medical College of Ohio, and Ohio State University. He was president of the American Physiological Society and an officer or council member of many scientific societies.

After retirement from UCSF in 1999, he served as secretary of the UCSF Emeritus Faculty Association and as an officer of the French-American Foundation for Medical Research and Education. He and his wife of nearly 60 years, Ruth Jackson Ganong, traveled extensively. More recently, he enjoyed spending time with his large family and watching the San Francisco 49ers.

Ganong, who died after living with prostate cancer for 17 years, is survived by his wife, his sister Ann Seidler; four children, Francis, Susan, Anna and James and their spouses; 12 grandchildren, four great-grandchildren, and numerous colleagues and friends around the world.

A memorial service will be held at 2 p.m. on Monday, March 3, in the Lange Room of the UCSF Kalmanovitz Library, 530 Parnassus Ave.

Contributions in Dr. Ganong’s memory to support research and education in physiology may be sent to the UCSF Department of Physiology, c/o UCSF Foundation, Box 45339, San Francisco, CA, 94145-0339.

UCSF is a leading university dedicated to promoting health worldwide through advanced biomedical research, graduate-level education in the life sciences and health professions, and excellence in patient care.