Melvin Malcolm Grumbach, Renowned Pediatric Endocrinologist, Dies at 90

Grumbach Led the Department of Pediatrics for 20 Years

By Nina Bai

Melvin Malcolm Grumbach, MD
Melvin Malcolm Grumbach, MD, led the UCSF Department of Pediatrics from 1966 to 1986. Photo by Susan Merrell

Melvin Malcolm Grumbach, MD, a leading figure in the field of pediatric endocrinology who is credited with making UC San Francisco’s Department of Pediatrics one of the top programs in the world, died Oct. 4. He was 90.

Grumbach conducted pioneering investigations to describe the changes in endocrine physiology from prenatal life through puberty. His work, from bench to bedside, helped advance therapies for a range of pediatric endocrine disorders and engaged contemporary issues related to development and gender.

He is credited also with elevating pediatrics at UCSF, from a small, regional program to one with international renown, during his time as department chair.

“He was a faculty member here for 50 years and generally known as the father of pediatrics here at UCSF,” said Chancellor Sam Hawgood, MBBS, paying tribute to Grumbach during his State of the University address on Oct 4. He noted that it was Grumbach who recruited him to UCSF in 1982 as a research fellow in neonatology. “He served as chair of the Department of Pediatrics for 20 years from 1966 to 1986, a time of tremendous transformation at UCSF in science, education and health care. Mel was a true UCSF giant and he will be missed.”

The cause of death was a heart attack, according to his son, Kevin Grumbach, MD, professor and chair of family and community medicine at the UCSF School of Medicine.

Highly Honored for His Research

In 2010, Grumbach received the UCSF Medal, the University’s highest honor. He was a member of the National Academy of Sciences, and a fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. His many awards and honors include the Koch Award of the Endocrine Society, the Borden Award for Research of the American Academy of Pediatrics, the John Howland Medal of the American Pediatric Society and the American Academy of Pediatrics Lifetime Achievement Award in Medical Education. He served as president of the American Pediatric Society and the Endocrine Society.

Grumbach was born Dec. 21, 1925, and grew up in Brooklyn, N.Y., where he first exercised his natural leadership skills as an avid Boy Scout.

He attended medical school and completed his residency at the Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons. There he also met his wife, Madeleine Francis Grumbach, one of only a handful of women graduating in the medical school’s class of 1951. Their relationship blossomed from a medical error – she helped him recuperate after surgery to remove a sponge left in his side from an appendectomy. They were married for 55 years.

From 1951 to 1953, Grumbach served as captain in the U.S. Air Force Medical Corps. He completed a postdoctoral fellowship at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, training under Lawson Wilkins, regarded as the father of the field of pediatric endocrinology.

He returned to Columbia University, where he became a rising star. His work focused on disorders of sex determination, using cytogenetics, a novel tool at the time. In the early 1960s, together with Selna Kaplan, MD, he characterized the hormonal regulation of growth from fetal life through puberty. He and his colleagues were the first to demonstrate the nuances of the hypothalamic control mechanism, which heralds the onset of puberty.

Work at UCSF, Around Social Issues

In 1966, he was recruited to become professor and chair of pediatrics at UCSF.  He was named the first Edward B. Shaw Professor of Pediatrics in 1984. In addition to his own prolific scientific accomplishments, he established one of the premier training programs in pediatric endocrinology and fostered fruitful collaborations between clinical investigators and laboratory-based scientists.

Grumbach did not shy away from socially charged issues related to his scientific research. His studies on the physiologic action of growth hormone led to synthetic human growth hormone, but he advocated against “medicalizing” short stature as a disease. Later in his career, he rejected the traditional view that anatomy alone should dictate gender in children born with ambiguous genitalia and supported a broader understanding of gender identity and deeper engagement with patients and their parents in choices of gender assignment.

In October 2012 at age 86, Grumbach’s last paper in which he was the senior author, “Advice on the management of ambiguous genitalia to a young endocrinologist from experienced clinicians,” was published in the journal Seminars in Reproductive Medicine.

According to his son Kevin, Grumbach will be remembered as “warm, generous, curious, principled and indefatigable.” He was a die-hard San Francisco 49ers fan, who could often be found on Sunday afternoons at his 50-yard line seat, frequently surrounded by family and trainees.

In addition to Kevin, Grumbach is survived by his oldest son Ethan, a PhD psychoanalyst, and youngest son Anthony, an attorney; his brother, Lee; as well as grandchildren Jake, Matt, Aimee, Zoe and Fletcher.

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