Environmental Factor

September 2011

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Remembering Joe Wachsman

By Eddy Ball
September 2011

Joe Wachsman, Ph.D.

Wachsman pursued his varied interests in science during his golden years, until his declining health prompted his retirement from NIEHS and move to live near family in Denver. According to members of his family, Wachsman's passion for science was only trumped by his deep love of music. (Photo courtesy of Steve McCaw)

Friends and colleagues at NIEHS were saddened to hear of the death of Joe Wachsman, Ph.D., July 10 in Denver, following a brief illness. Wachsman, who was 83 at the time of his death, is survived by his daughters, Dianne Betkowski and her husband Adam of Denver, Nina Alivio and her husband Ben, and Claire Alba and her husband Rennie, as well as Wachsman's sister, Terri Jackson, and seven grandchildren.

Wachsman worked in several groups at NIEHS during his tenure as a special volunteer from the early 1990s and to the mid 2000s. He joined the Institute following his retirement as a professor at the University of Illinois (UI) at Urbana-Champaign and an appointment at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

After receiving his doctoral degree from the University of California, Berkeley, Wachsman completed a fellowship with the National Cancer Institute before joining UI, where he was also a Research Career Development awardee of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases. During his more than 30-year career at UI, Wachsman touched the lives of many students, including NIEHS/NTP Director Linda Birnbaum, Ph.D., who completed her doctorate there.

An intellectual presence at NIEHS

NIEHS pathologist Gordon Flake, M.D., who kept in touch with Wachsman and his family during the years since his retirement from NIEHS, expressed the sentiments of many, when he commented about Wachsman's insatiable curiosity, humor, and enthusiasm for science. “He told me that he lived for the noontime seminars, which he always seemed to grasp and could always be counted on for a question or two at the end.”

Wachsman's supervisor during his association with the NTP predictive toxicology project in the mid-1990s, toxicologist Ray Tennant, Ph.D., said of his friend and colleague, “Joe was just plain a good guy with a broad range of interests who would talk science at the drop of a hat.” Biologist Carol Trempus, who worked in NTP at the time, added, “He was definitely a presence back in those days.”

NIEHS lead researcher and former Deputy Director Samuel Wilson, M.D., was Wachsman's supervisor, when he worked with the Office of the Director (OD) in the early 2000s conceptualizing new research opportunities, especially in the area of oxidative stress. “Joe's interest in oxidative stress and how that impacts environmental health overlapped interest in OD at the time and interest across the Institute in oxidative stress.... He was a person with a great deal of intellectual curiosity and a passion for scholarship.”

Along with his interest in oxidative stress, Wachsman is remembered for an early paper on epigenetics. Published in 1997 in Mutation Research, the paper explored “DNA methylation and the association between genetic and epigenetic changes: Relation to carcinogenesis,” a topic that has stirred widespread interest among the scientific community in the years that followed its publication.

Reflections on a friend and colleague

Even as Wachsman's health declined, said Flake, “He was always researching cures for his own illnesses, and, in spite of all his problems, he always seemed upbeat, like each day was a new day. I'll miss Joe,” Flake added. “He was a funny guy, a smart guy, and a friend.”

Colleague Tom Hawkins, who worked in policy and communications at NIEHS, described Wachsman as “a warm and engaging human being and intensely interested in the ideas in science.” Hawkins also said, “With him, you always knew that science was a growing, learning, evolving discipline.”  

Another of the people moved by their friendship with Wachsman, NTP geneticist Frank Johnson, Ph.D., said of his late colleague, “He was very open-minded and a true intellectual. He would question anything - he didn't care whether something was a sacred cow or not,” Johnson added. “He added a lot to this place.”

Notable publications

A microbiologist by training, Wachsman, as Johnson described him, “morphed a bit like a lot of us have,” developing interests in toxicology, molecular genetics, and epigenetics over the course of his career. During his time at NIEHS and NTP, Wachsman authored or co-authored several papers, including some memorable reviews:

  • Wachsman JT, Bristol DW, Spalding J, Shelby M, Tennant RW. 1993. Predicting Chemical Carcinogenesis in Rodents. Environ Health Perspect 101(5):444-445.
  • Bristol DW, Wachsman JT, Greenwell A. 1996. The NIEHS predictive-toxicology evaluation project: Chemocarcinogenicity bioassays. Environ Health Perspect 104(Suppl 5):1001-1010.
  • Wachsman, JT. 1997. DNA methylation and the association between genetic and epigenetic changes: Relation to carcinogenesis. Mutat Res 375(a):1-8.
  • Penta JS, Johnson FM, Wachsman JT and Copeland WC. 2001. Mitochondrial DNA in human malignancy. Mutat Res 488(2):119-133.
  • Copeland WC, Wachsman JT, Johnson FM, Penta JS. 2002. Mitochondrial DNA alterations in cancer. Cancer Invest 20(4):557-569.

(Citations courtesy of Frank Johnson)

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