James Wyngaarden, former chair of Medicine and NIH director, has died

Monday, June 17, 2019

James B. Wyngaarden, MD, professor emeritus and former chair of the Duke Department of Medicine as well as former director of the National Institutes of Health, died on June 14 at the age of 94.

Dr. Wyngaarden was a towering figure in medicine and an exceptional leader at Duke. He was an internationally recognized authority on the regulation of purine biosynthesis and the genetics of gout and a nationally respected advocate for the role of physician-scientists in clinical investigations.

Wyngaarden served as chair of Medicine at Duke for 15 years, then left in 1982 to be the twelfth director of the NIH. He served in that role until 1989 and returned to Duke to be associate vice chancellor for health affairs from 1990 to 1994.

"Jim Wyngaarden was a giant among the greatest generation of leaders of American medicine of the 20th Century," said Ralph Snyderman, MD, chancellor emeritus of health affairs at Duke University.

Wyngaarden  was a pioneer in molecular medicine, an approach that seeks to determine the molecular basis of diseases in order to facilitate their treatment and cure. Among his accomplishments was clarifying the cause of gout, which led to one of its best treatments.

Read an obituary for Dr. Wyngaarden

"Jim was an icon at Duke and beyond," said Mary Klotman, MD, professor of medicine and dean of the Duke University School of Medicine. Dr. Klotman also served as chair of the Department of Medicine, from 2010 to 2017. "I had the honor of training under Jim, and he gave me and so many others a shining example of how to be a physician who is a leader, investigator, and educator."

As Medicine chair, Wyngaarden recruited, trained or mentored more than 35 physicians who themselves would become chairs of internal medicine departments—or deans and health system executives—across the country.

"Jim was a creator and model of the physician-scientist, and he had an extraordinary ability to recruit the best people to Duke," said Dr. Snyderman. Wyngaarden's recruits included rheumatologist William Kelley, dermatologist Gerald Lazarus, biochemist Robert Lefkowitz (who earned the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 2012), Snyderman, and many others.

For two decades, Wyngaarden and Kelley, chief of Rheumatology and Immunology (1968-1975), edited textbooks that were major references for the fields of rheumatology and inborn errors of metabolism. In collaboration with former NIH director Donald Fredrickson and others, he edited "The Metabolic Basis of Inherited Disease." (Kelley went on to become chair of medicine at University of Michigan. Kathleen Cooney, MD, the current chair of the Duke Department of Medicine, was chief resident during Kelley's tenure at Michigan, and helped him edit his massive textbook on internal medicine.)

Wyngaarden earned his medical degree at the University of Michigan, trained in internal medicine at the Massachusetts General Hospital, and did postdoctoral work at the Public Health Research Institute of the City of New York. After serving as research associate at NIH from 1953 to 1956, he joined Duke University School of Medicine in 1956 as an associate professor and later became director of the medical research training program here.

During a sabbatical in 1963 and 1964, he was a visiting scientist at the Institut de Biologie-Physiocochemique in Paris. Shortly after he returned to the United States, he left Duke to become professor and chairman of the department of medicine and professor of biochemistry at the University of Pennsylvania. He returned to Duke in 1967.

Wyngaarden was a member of a number of professional societies including the National Academies of Sciences, for which he served as foreign secretary  responsible for the international activities of the Academy. He also was a member of the American Society for Clinical Investigation, and a past president of the Association of American Physicians. He was a fellow of the Royal College of Physicians of London and was elected to the Royal Academy of Sciences of Sweden in 1987. He was a consultant for the President's Office of Science and Technology (1966-1972), a member of the President's Science Advisory Committee (1972-1973), and a member of the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission's Advisory Committee on Biology and Medicine.

He was awarded the John Phillips Memorial Award of the American College of Physicians in 1980 and the Kober Medal of the Association of American Physicians in 1991. Duke University awarded Wyngaarden an honorary degree in 2006.


A visitation will take place at Clements Funeral Service (1105 Broad Street, Durham) on June 21 from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m. Funeral services will be June 22 at 2 p.m. at Blacknall Memorial Presbyterian Church in Durham, with internment at Maplewood Cemetery.

Voices of Medicine

When Dr. Wyngaarden became chair of Medicine, he learned that Grace Kerby, MD, the first female to become full professor in the Department of Medicine, was getting paid half what her male colleagues were. Listen here to learn how Wyngaarden responded.