Donald Jeffrey Reis, MD
September 9, 1931–November 1, 2000
On November 1, 2000, I lost a great friend and mentor, and the world of neuroscience lost a stimulus that, in many ways, will remain unmatched. Don Reis died after a valiant battle against hepatic cancer. Don and his wife, Cornelia, bore the burden of his grave illness with dignity and quiet determination. That was just their way. Don was one of the most innovative biological scientists I have ever met. His reputation had taken him to countries around the world, and from those travels he had brought back stories that could keep a gathering of friends intrigued by his adventures and delighted with his way of weaving humor into the fabric of his tales. Yet the story of his illness was a private matter. To the end he shared his warmth and humor, not his fears, with his friends and long-term associates.
About a month before his death, Don and I talked by phone when I called to wish him a return to good health. That conversation exemplified what those of us who knew and admired Don had come to expect of him. Despite his illness, he was looking to the future, expecting another success as he awaited surgery, and even thinking about his next scientific project and grant. He was, in fact, already planning the strategy for that grant and fully expected to be successful once again. His approach to everything was positive, and his expectations were always for success. Years ago when I worked with him as a junior fellow in his laboratory, I was amazed at his resilience when some of the leaders in his laboratory moved to positions at other universities or into industry. I asked him how he could remain so positive and deal with losses of people who had been so influential in many of the studies performed in his laboratory. He explained that he always approached things with the expectation that he would succeed. With his philosophy and gifts, there seemed never to be a problem that a bit of Don’s ingenuity couldn’t solve.
Yet when I recall that ingenuity, it, like many of my recollections of Don, brings a smile. For example, once we thought that Don had met his match when he learned that the IRS was auditing his tax return. They seemed to have taken exception to his deducting a scuba-diving vacation to the Caribbean as a business expense. Neither the agent nor we were prepared for Don’s explanation of why the deduction was perfectly appropriate. As Don explained, he had, after all, spent his life studying the diving reflex, and his scuba dives were really just an extension in man of his investigations in experimental animals. When Don was finished, the agent actually thought he understood the diving reflex, and Don had his deduction.
Of course, Don’s real creative gifts shone most brightly through his scientific work. When chairing a scientific session, I once joked that the next paper would be from the laboratory of et al and Reis. The joke implied what was obvious to us all. We knew that the conductor of the scientific orchestra, his laboratory, was Reis himself. Not only was the quality of his work extraordinary, the quantity was staggering. Each year you could count on Don to vie for the most papers presented at the Society for Neuroscience meeting. He often won that small contest. Thus, it was fitting that his final days were spent working with members of his current laboratory in their preparations for this year’s meeting of that society. Although he wouldn’t attend this, the 30th annual meeting of a society in which he was one of the influential founding members, his presence at that meeting was palpable. Yet his absence left a void among all who did attend just as it will at meetings of the American Physiological Society, in which he had been so instrumental for years. We had become accustomed to his seminal questions, and those questions had taken on an identity that could not easily be separated from the societies themselves. Speakers often were taken aback that they hadn’t thought of the avenues that Don’s mind was exploring in their work. Yet he could ask the most probing question without a harsh edge and tended to sparkle with the wonderful sense of humor that was so apparent to his colleagues and friends. Indeed, without that humor it is hard to imagine his directing the Laboratory of Neurobiology, which he founded and ran at Cornell University Medical College for over 30 years. Without it, New York’s Upper East Side might have exploded with the concentration of scientists (over 50 during my years with Don), each with an agenda, in so small a place. Instead of an explosion, it was more likely that you would hear music ringing from that laboratory. Don, a pianist and composer who might well have made a career through his music (at least as a rival of Victor Borge), had resurrected an old, discarded upright piano from the streets of New York and had given it a place of honor in our laboratory’s hallway. Although the piano was a few keys short of a keyboard, Don could ripple off a tune with uncanny ease while moving from one laboratory meeting to the next. Our secretaries also became quite accustomed to music when transcribing his dictations. Particularly when a grant would be in the offing, Don would retire to his haven on East 72nd St, where he could devote undistracted thoughts to his next creation and where his beloved grand piano sat prominently in his living room. Because he would often forget to turn off the dictation machine when taking a break, his secretaries back in the laboratory office frequently were seen sitting motionless at their stations as they listened to Don roll off Mozart, Chopin, or, for total relaxation, Joplin. When finished with his musical creation, he would move again seamlessly into his scientific creation. And so it was for this man who could dazzle you with his repartee, amaze you with his gift of music, and leave you wondering just how far we might go if we would just give our own imaginations free rein.
The outward Don was all these things, but there was the inner Don, the private Don, whom few got to know and maybe couldn’t fully understand. For years, we all thought that Don’s only reasons for spending so much time in Washington, DC, were his visits to the National Institutes of Health and his great love of the Library of Congress, another of his havens for creative thought. Little did his professional colleagues know that Washington held another attraction. Thus, when we received an invitation to the marriage of Cornelia Langer Noland and Donald Jeffrey Reis in 1985, we immediately packed our bags for a trip to New York just to be sure that the big event really happened. And happen it did. If there had ever been any doubt that Don would devote himself to anyone as much as he devoted himself to his work, all doubt faded with his marriage to Cornelia. Cornelia, who brought new smiles to Don’s face and even more twinkle to his eyes, complemented Don’s life and, I have to believe, played a big role in Don’s ever more innovative approach to his research. It was in this past decade, the full decade of their marriage, that Don began to open our minds to the possibility that the brain may have intrinsic mechanisms through which it can protect itself from injury. His scientific talks, always entertaining as well as illuminating, now began to feature diving whales. The genius and recurring theme of Don’s life work became all the more apparent. These diving mammals, with a reflex to which many had paid little attention, had sparked Don to wonder whether the brain might be protecting itself when exposed to hypoxia and asphyxia. Having pioneered studies of central mechanisms in baroreflex control, described pathways that now any cardiovascular physiologist can recite, recognized ways by which the brain may participate in neurogenic hypertension, and identified critical transmitters in cardiovascular reflex transmission, Don and his colleagues began to enter the frontier of neuroprotection. That work is unfinished, but even so, et al and Reis have begun to describe central oxygen receptors, pathways through which the brain may protect itself from ischemic injury, and cellular mechanisms for that protection. We can only hope that the work will continue, for its promise is immense.
Odds are good that the work will continue. Don, the inveterate New Yorker, the mentor to many a young scientist who might not have made it without him, the colleague and guide to more than 100 postdoctoral candidates from around the world, and the stimulus to so much of our current thinking in cardiovascular physiology has passed the baton to those who will succeed him. I just have to believe that he would anticipate our success.
Dr Donald Reis was a major, tireless, and committed neurobiologist for a broad scientific community, including hypertension research. He was a frequent contributor to the programs of the Council for High Blood Pressure Research and Hypertension. His important investigative work provided us with a much clearer understanding of the neural regulation of arterial pressure. His achievements were recognized by the Council when he was conferred the 1987 CIBA Award for his and his colleagues’ “outstanding contributions to the identification of the brain centers, neurons, and neurotransmitters involved in the control of arterial pressure.”1 Dr William Talman’s In Memoriam is a beautiful and touching contribution to the referenced scientific literature by a former trainee and later close colleague. Clearly, we shall miss Don and his contributions, but his contributions will remain enduring, and the work of his colleagues will always be welcome.
A perpetual memorial in Dr Reis’s name has been created by the American Physiological Society, with the concurrence of Dr Reis’s wife, Cornelia, to support a distinguished lectureship or annual award in his name. For those interested, please send your tax-deductible contributions to the Donald J. Reis Memorial Fund, c/o The Physiological Society, 9650 Rockville Pike, Bethesda, MD 20814-3991.