Robert F. Furchgott, Nobelist for work on gas

By Douglas Martin
New York Times / May 24, 2009
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NEW YORK - Robert F. Furchgott, a pharmacologist whose work with the gas nitric oxide opened new vistas of research in cardiovascular functions, helped lead to the development of Viagra, and brought him a share of a Nobel Prize, died May 19 in Seattle. He was 92.

His daughter Susan confirmed the death.

Nitric oxide had been known as an air pollutant that contributed to smog and acid rain, but research by Dr. Furchgott, Dr. Louis J. Ignarro, and Dr. Ferid Murad proved that it acted as an important signal in the cardiovascular system, mediating blood pressure and blood flow.

In awarding the prize for physiology or medicine in 1998, the Swedish Nobel assembly praised the scientists for providing the first proof that a gas, despite its inherent instability and ephemeral nature, can perform important biochemical functions in the body.

Subsequent research by others has indicated that nitric oxide, a colorless, odorless gas, has significant medical potential. It is being widely explored as a possible treatment for heart disease, shock, cancer, pain, and pulmonary hypertension, a potentially fatal condition in premature infants. In 1992, the journal Science anointed nitric oxide its "molecule of the year."

In an interview with The New York Times in 1998, Dr. Valentin Fuster, then president of the American Heart Association, said "the discovery of nitric oxide and its function is one of the most important in the history of cardiovascular medicine."

Nitric oxide should not be confused with nitrous oxide gas, the so-called laughing gas used in anesthesia, nor with nitrogen dioxide, another air pollutant. Nitric oxide, poisonous in larger quantities, is produced by burning nitrogen. Scientists knew that it could be produced by bacteria before Dr. Furchgott and the other laureates showed its importance in animals and humans. In 1980, Dr. Furchgott, who for many years worked at the State University of New York Downstate Medical Center in Brooklyn, performed what the Nobel committee called "an ingenious experiment."

He showed that blood vessels widen because their linings produce a molecule to tell the vessels' smooth muscle cells to relax. But he could not pinpoint the relaxing factor.

In 1986, Dr. Furchgott told a symposium at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn., that he had identified that factor as nitric oxide. Ignarro, of the University of California, Los Angeles, told the same meeting that he had independently come up with the same result.

Also working independently, Murad, of the University of Texas Medical School at Houston, had earlier postulated that nitric oxide might be produced by one cell, travel through membranes, and then regulate the function of other cells.

Robert Francis Furchgott was born in Charleston, S.C., on June 4, 1916, and developed an early interest in birds, shells, and other natural phenomena and enjoyed reading books about scientists. He earned a degree in chemistry from the University of North Carolina and a doctorate in biochemistry from Northwestern University.

Before coming to SUNY Downstate in 1956, he taught and researched at Cornell and Washington universities. He was chairman of Downstate's pharmacology department from 1956 until 1982, then, after stepping down, continued as a professor until his retirement in 1989. Even after leaving teaching, he continued doing research at Downstate.

Dr. Furchgott's first wife, Lenore, died in 1983; his second wife, Margaret, died several years ago. In addition to his daughter Susan, he leaves two other daughters, Jane and Terry; four grandchildren; and one great-granddaughter.