Man Behind The Mission


William J. Schull, Ph.D.

Dr. Schull has contributed extensively to human genetics and public health for over five decades, the last three in Houston. Prior to his retirement, he was Ashbel Smith Professor of Academic Medicine at The University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston. He was the Health Science Center's inaugural President's Scholar. He is also the recipient of the Silvio O. Conte Environmental Health Award, and in 1992, he was awarded the Order of the Sacred Treasure Third Class by the Emperor of Japan, the highest honor bestowed on foreign, non-diplomatic individuals. In addition to being an author of over 400 publications, including 14 books, he has served on numerous editorial boards, as a visiting professor in several universities, and on more than 40 national and international panels. He has worked tirelessly on reports that summarize knowledge on the effect of exposure to ionizing radiation; these reports have guided the United States, the United Nations and the World Health Organization in formulating policies that affect us all. While these accomplishments speak to a lifetime of sustained scientific productivity, it is only when his research themes are fully examined; that one begins to sense the true depth and breadth of Dr. Schull’s contributions to the world community. His research career reveals three recurring themes. First, a career-long interest in the effects of radiation exposure on the survivors of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Second, his focus on the genetics of populations and the epidemiology of chronic disease conditions. Third, his continuous interest in the creation and maintenance of research environments in which early career scientists and clinicians are free to flourish.

Dr. Schull’s collaborations with South America began in Chile in 1967 when he was joined at the University of Michigan by Dr. Edmundo Covarrubias, the first of several Fogarty International Fellows from Chile to study with Dr. Schull.  Subsequently he was invited to Santiago to assist Drs. Covarrubias and José Barzelatto in the analysis of data collected from a study of endemic goiter in the Pehuenche.  This association would lead to some twelve additional Chilean scholars who either studied with or conducted research under the guidance of Dr. Schull at the Center for Demographic and Population Genetics of the University of Texas Health Science Center in Houston. 

Much of what we currently know regarding the genetic effects of exposure to ionizing radiation is the result of studies initiated by Drs. Schull and James V. Neel and guided by them for more than 50 years. These endeavors have established the risk for cancers following exposure to ionizing radiation, and led to fundamental insights into the effects of the timing of prenatal radiation exposure and subsequent mental retardation. The research involving the critical nature of exposure on the developing embryo particularly demonstrates Dr. Schull's excitement for research and scholarship. He has pursued these studies with the enthusiasm of a graduate student and the wisdom of a senior scientist.  

Second, Dr. Schull's research efforts have concentrated on the genetics of populations and the etiology of common chronic conditions. Initially he pursued these efforts as one of the founding members of the first human genetics department in the country. In 1954 he coauthored one of the first textbooks of human genetics laying out the foundations and directions of the field. In 1965, with Drs. JV Neel and MW Shaw, Dr. Schull edited a volume on the genetics and epidemiology of chronic disease (Neel, J. V., Shaw, M. W. and Schull, W. J., eds., 1965,  Genetics and the Epidemiology of Chronic Disease.  Washington, D. C.: Government Printing Office). The research directions set out in this conference were at least 10 to 15 years ahead of their time. In 1972, he came to The University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston and founded the Center for Demographic and Population Genetics (CDPG).The latter brought together population geneticists and demographers in a manner that had not been previously achieved. The purpose of the Center was to understand the impact of genetic variation on individuals, families and populations considering time and geographic distribution. He embarked on a series of genetic studies of New World Native peoples. He led expeditions to the altiplano of Chile to study the Aymará in 1973 and 1974, as well as expeditions to Alaska, Panama, and Bolivia, seeking genetically unique reference populations (Schull, W. J. and Rothhammer, F., 1977,  A multinational Andean genetic and health program: A study of adaptation to the hypoxia of altitude.  In: Weiner, J. S., Ed., Physiological Variation and its Genetic Basis. Soc. Study Human Biology. Vol. 17. London: Taylor and Francis, pp. 139‑169; Schull, W. J. and Rothhammer, F., Eds., 1990, The Aymará: Strategies in Human Adaptation to a Rigorous Environment.  Kluwer Academic Publishers, The Netherlands; and Barton, S. A., Rothhammer, R., and Schull, W. J., eds., 1997, Patterns of Morbidity in Andean Aboriginal Populations: 8000 Years of Evolution. Santiago, Chile: Amphora Editores).  In the late 1970's, Dr. Schull recognized the biological and societal need for understanding chronic disease in the Mexican-American population of Texas. This was long before mandated interest in such groups occurred. He set up a series of continuing studies that have contributed much to our understanding of the genetics and epidemiology of cancer, non-insulin-dependent diabetes, gallbladder disease and cardiovascular risk among Mexican-Americans in South Texas and elsewhere. This work has been fundamental in defining the chronic disease burden disproportionately borne by the Mexican-American population and its unique genetic factors. 

Third, in addition to devotion to his own research interests, Dr. Schull has unselfishly given of his time, energy, and compassion to fostering the careers of young scientists in the U.S., Japan, South America and elsewhere. Without question he is a delight to know. He is insightful, educated in the arts and humanities, enthusiastic and well versed in language and other pursuits. Perhaps evidencing these attributes best, are his recent books titled Song Among the Ruins (Harvard Press, 1990) in which he gives his personal observations and reflections on life and change in postwar Japan and Effects of Atomic Radiation: A Half Century of Research in Hiroshima and Nagasaki (Wiley, 1995). Here we gain a glimpse of who Dr. Jack Schull is beyond his research contributions.

Last Updated (Tuesday, 16 June 2009 17:42)