UCSF Remembers Former Senior Vice Chancellor David Ramsay

Ramsay Oversaw UCSF’s Rise to Academic Prominence, Steered Progress at Institute for Neurodegenerative Diseases

By Nicholas Weiler

David Ramsay
David Ramsay, DM, DPhil. Photo by Cindy Chew

David Ramsay, a former UC San Francisco senior vice chancellor and president of the University of Maryland, Baltimore (UMB) who since 2010 had served as associate director of the UCSF Institute for Neurodegenerative Diseases (IND), died June 18, 2020, after a short illness. He was 81.

“During David’s 12-year tenure as Senior Vice Chancellor, UCSF rose to national eminence, particularly in the areas of strengthened academic programs and increased community involvement,” said Talmadge E. King, Jr., MD, dean of the School of Medicine. “David was always modest but played critical roles in advancing the missions of both UCSF and the IND. He will be dearly missed by his many friends and colleagues at UCSF and throughout the world.”

“David’s contributions to the development of the IND were extraordinary,” said Stanley Prusiner, MD, the IND’s founding director and a professor of neurology in the UCSF Weill Institute for Neurosciences. Prusiner recruited Ramsay to join the institute as associate director on his return from UMB, where Ramsay was president from 1994 to 2010. “He skillfully nurtured the Institute from an aspiration into an internationally recognized program focused on neurodegeneration and drug discovery.”

Born in England, Ramsay earned baccalaureate, masters, doctoral, and advanced medical degrees at Oxford University, before joining the faculty of Corpus Christi College as University Lecturer in the Laboratory of Physiology.

Ramsay first came to UCSF on a sabbatical in 1973, then moved to the University permanently in 1975 as a faculty member of the Department of Physiology, where he conducted influential research on the neurobiology of thirst. In 1982, UCSF Chancellor Julius Krevans, MD, appointed him to serve as senior vice chancellor for academic affairs, a position he held until he left to accept the presidency of UMB.

Ramsay’s tenure as senior vice chancellor coincided with a period of increasing national prominence for UCSF’s academic programs, as well as an increased focus on community involvement. For instance, Ramsay was co-founder, with Bruce Alberts, PhD, of the UCSF Science and Health Education Partnership, which connects science teachers from the San Francisco Unified School District with UCSF scientists and with resources to support students’ education in science.

“When David took on this leadership role, UCSF was beginning to expand to take on a larger role in the city, including merging with Mt. Zion Hospital and acquiring the Laurel Heights site,” recalled Bruce Wintroub, MD, PhD, chair of the Department of Dermatology and School of Medicine vice-dean, who became friendly with Ramsay in the 1980s. “Chancellor Krevans was the face of the expansion, but David was right in the middle of it, behind the scenes. He was tremendously skilled at making things like that happen and ensuring they went smoothly while also fostering positive relationships with everyone involved.”

Ramsay was also known for spotting and advocating for the careers of promising young researchers, according to Dennis Hartzell, MA, who worked closely with Ramsay as UCSF’s Director of Corporate Relations in the late ’80s and early ’90s to establish valuable connections between the University and Japan’s pharmaceutical industry.

As president of UMB for 15 years, Ramsay was known for expanding and developing the university’s campus as well as boosting the its reputation as a leading research institution. He also worked with Hartzell, whom he recruited to UMB to serve as Executive Advisor to the President, to continue building relationships with the Japanese life science industry.

Ramsay was “simply the best organizational leader I have ever met,” Hartzell said. “He was adept at recognizing talent and nurturing individuals; he understood his obligation as chief executive to identify opportunities that would move the organization forward, even when there were risks involved; and he was true to his top priorities by how he allocated his time. Everyone also knew that just because David was nice didn’t mean he was soft — David was an extremely kind man, but never weak.”

Ramsay “brought UMB to national prominence as a research institution,” wrote current UMB interim president Bruce E. Jarrell, MD, in an email to the UMB community following Ramsay’s death. “During his presidency, Dr. Ramsay was the driving force behind the vast expansion of UMB. His vision included the creation of our BioPark [and] bringing new therapeutics and diagnostics to the market by bringing together academic and industry biomedical researchers. Under his leadership, he also completely changed the physical landscape of our campus.”

After retiring from UMB in 2010, Ramsay returned to UCSF as an Emeritus Professor in the Department of Neurology. Prusiner, who by this time had won the 1997 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for his discovery of infectious prion proteins, had just founded the IND and was looking for someone to help oversee the fledgling institute, and leapt at the opportunity to recruit Ramsay to help make his vision for the Institute a reality. “I thought, two weeks is too soon. He’ll still be getting moved in. But four weeks is too long — someone else will snap him up,” Prusiner recalled. “So I gave him a call after three weeks exactly.”

David Ramsay and Stanley Prusiner
David Ramsay, DM, DPhil, right, with Stanley Prusiner, MD, in 2014. Photo by Cindy Chew

Ramsay was deeply interested in the problems posed by neurodegenerative diseases and quickly agreed to become Prusiner’s associate director at the IND, which flourished under their joint leadership.

“Over nearly a half century of knowing David there was never an angry word between us,” Prusiner said. “He was incredible with the IND’s faculty and staff and nurtured many people’s careers. He always had thoughtful and clever insights about how to help people in whatever troubles they were having. He didn’t have five agendas like I do — he had one agenda, which was the success of the IND.”

Ramsay had a hand in nearly all aspects of the IND’s operations, including building key partnerships with Japanese pharmaceutical giant Daiichi Sankyo and the U.S. Department of Defense, but as was his preference, he tended to operate in the background. Those whose work and lives he touched, however, remember him as an ever-present, steady hand and a valued source of wisdom and practical advice on nearly any topic — including deep expertise in world travel, food and wine.

“David was instrumental in creating the IND. He was deeply involved in every faculty recruitment and served as a sounding board for scientific, administrative and financial decisions,” said Jason Gestwicki, PhD, a professor with the IND and UCSF Weill Institute for Neurosciences. “David was also truly one of the warmest, kindest and most thoughtful people I have ever met. I will miss him deeply.”

“David was a fantastic scientist, leader and colleague who really shaped UCSF,” said Dan Southworth, PhD, an associate professor of biochemistry and biophysics based at the IND. “I knew him to be extraordinarily kind and tremendously devoted to the IND and faculty here. He always took time out to speak with me and quickly had a significant impact on my career. He will be missed.”

“Working with David has been a professional privilege and honor,” said Julian Castaneda, DVM, PhD, director of the IND’s research animal facility. “His support and guidance were crucial at making the unit that I direct into a more powerful research arm of the IND. He helped me become a better leader and person due the lessons that he taught me on management, finances, politics and life — often through stories from his vast trove of experience.”

“David was cut from a very different cloth,” Castaneda added. “On the one hand he was a major presence in world-class academic science, with important international connections to major pharmaceutical companies and governments, but on the other hand he was always completely humble. He was known as a diplomat due to the attentiveness, elegance and effectiveness with which he would handle challenges requiring the utmost attention and care. I will miss him tremendously and will always be grateful for the lessons and friendship he shared with me.”