Avram Goldstein
July 3, 1919-June 1, 2012
Palo Alto, California

Avram Goldstein, 92, a Stanford professor of pharmacology and one of the discoverers of endorphins in the late 1970s, died June 1, 2012, after a long decline. He helped create the new Stanford Medical School in the 1950s, wrote a pharmacology textbook, founded a journal, organized California's first major methadone program, and made breakthrough discoveries in his lab about how narcotic drugs work in the brain.

Avram Goldstein was born July 3, 1919, in New York City to Israel and Bert Goldstein and had a younger sister, Vivian. Growing up in Manhattan during the skyscraper-building boom and the Great Depression, he attended the progressive Walden School. The son of a prominent rabbi and Zionist, Goldstein became an atheist in childhood and dedicated his life to science. He was admitted to Harvard at age 15 but deferred college for a year and worked on a kibbutz in Palestine (although later, as an adult, he did not participate in Jewish life). After graduating from Harvard (1940) and Harvard Medical School (1943), he served in the U.S. Army in Colorado during World War II, treating soldiers returning from Europe. Goldstein's first wife, Naomi Friedman, died in a car accident in 1946. He married Dora (Dody) Benedict, who would become a distinguished pharmacologist herself, in 1947. During 63 years of marriage, they moved to Stanford, raised four children, and spent sabbatical years in Edinburgh, Copenhagen and Cambridge (UK).

As a 35-year-old assistant professor at Harvard in 1955, Goldstein accepted an offer to chair Stanford's pharmacology department and hire new faculty for a research-oriented medical school that Stanford planned to build on its sprawling California campus. Goldstein recruited other leading scientists to Stanford, notably by telling famed biochemist Arthur Kornberg that if he liked his current department so much, "Fine -- bring them all." The new medical school building materialized as promised, and its newly arrived faculty spent decades in the middle of the revolution in molecular biology that followed on the discovery of DNA.

While department chair (1955-70), Goldstein studied the effects of caffeine in human subjects, founded the journal Molecular Pharmacology (1965), wrote Biostatistics (1967) and coauthored the textbook Principles of Drug Action (1968). In 1969, wanting to do socially meaningful work, he turned to opiates such as morphine and heroin at a time when these drugs were ravaging American cities but nobody understood their effects in the brain. Goldstein announced to his lab staff one day, "We're going to switch all the research we're doing, quit the microbial stuff, ... and apply for new grants to work on opiates." He developed the methodology for studying how molecules bind to opiate receptors in the brain, a key step in the search for the endorphins.

In the 1970s Goldstein worked doggedly to isolate and identify the chemical structure of an endorphin receptor and then the endorphin itself. At one point his lab spent four years turning tons of pig pituitaries into two micrograms of purified endorphin. (He posted on the wall of the lab the sheet music for "He Shall Purify" from Handel's Messiah.) The molecule he thus discovered was one of the major endorphins, which he named dynorphin because of its high potency. However, he lost the friendly competition to discover the first endorphins (the enkephalins).

Simultaneously with his lab research, Goldstein worked directly with heroin addicts in San Jose, where he organized California's first major methadone clinic in the early 1970s. He wanted to learn about the realities of heroin addiction and to measure scientifically the effectiveness of methadone treatment. Over the years, Goldstein advised policy makers on drug policies, generally advocating a public-health, harm-reduction approach. He helped develop urine tests that identified returning Vietnam veterans addicted to heroin so they could receive treatment before being discharged. Goldstein's book Addiction (1994; 2001) explained drug addiction, from biology to government policy, for a broad audience. He consulted for biotech industry in Silicon Valley, serving as scientific adviser to several companies. Thus his work ran the spectrum from basic research to real-world applied science. These came together in 1974 when Goldstein established the Addiction Research Foundation next-door to Stanford, housing lab research, human-subjects research, and treatment of heroin addicts.

Goldstein won the Benjamin Franklin Medal in Life Science (1980) and major awards in pharmacology. He was elected to the National Academy of Sciences and its Institute of Medicine. He published more than 360 research articles. The Avram Goldstein Professorship in the School of Medicine at Stanford is named for him.

Goldstein embraced the California lifestyle, driving a convertible and holding lab meetings at home by his swimming pool. He was passionate about piloting small airplanes -- even moonlighting as an instrument flight instructor and writing several books about flying. He loved opera, and was fascinated by southwest American Indian cultures. He was politically active in various causes, with liberal views on human rights, feminism and peace, but conservative views of university governance and curriculum.

Goldstein was treated for lymphoma in the 1970s, one of the first patients to receive radiation, and recovered fully. However, he was confined to a wheelchair in his last decade, after a spinal-cord injury, and relied on his long-time caregiver Mara Passi. He is survived by his children, Margaret Wallace of Longmont, Colo., Daniel Goldstein of Port Townsend, Wash., Joshua Goldstein of Amherst, Mass., and Michael Goldstein of San Francisco; grandchildren, Andrew Wallace of Los Angeles, Jennifer Goldstein of Port Townsend, Wash., Robert Goldstein of Portland, Ore., and Solomon and Ruth Goldstein-Rose of Amherst, Mass. He was pre-deceased by his sister, Vivian Olum, in 1986 and his wife, Dora B. Goldstein, last October.

A family memorial is planned.

Biographical articles:

"Conversation with Avram Goldstein." Addiction 92 (10), 1997: 1241-54.

Avram Goldstein, "A Rewarding Research Pathway." Annual Review of Pharmacology and Toxicology 37, 1997: 1-28.

"The 'Social-Chemistry' of Pharmacological Discovery." [interview]. Social Pharmacology 3, 1989: 15-35.

Tags: veteran, teacher/educator, public service

1 entry Submit a remembrance
From Henry Organ
June 8, 2012
He was a good, good man! I was honored to be on the Board of Directors of a non-profit, tax-exempt organization he founded, the Addiction Research Foundation.

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