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Kurt Hirschhorn

Born 1926

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Austrian-born American geneticist, paediatrician and educator, born May 18, 1926, Vienna.

Biography of Kurt Hirschhorn

Kurt Hirschhorn was born to Emanuel Hirschhorn and his wife Helen, nee Mayberger. His father had dual degrees in law and business administration and worked in the lumber industry in Europe.

His two main avocations growing up were mathematics and music. He received his early education in Vienna, where the family lived comfortably until the Anschluss with Germany in 1938. He was immediately expelled from an elite school and forced into a school that was set up for Jewish students. His father was imprisoned because he was Jewish and active in the social democratic party. However, his mother was able to obtain a two week transit visa to Switzerland and, through family contacts, secure the release of Kurt's father from prison. The family then crossed the border to Switzerland where they stayed for 10 months. They eventually came to the United States via England on a convoy of 40 boats, of which three were torpedoed.

After three months in New York the family settled in Pittsburgh, where he entered an academically rigorous public high school. He graduated at the age of 17 ½ and completed one term as chemistry major at the University of Pittsburgh. At 18 he volunteered for the army. When he was demobilised in 1947 he settled in New York City where his parents now lived. He continued with his studies, obtaining his BA cum laude in 1950 from New York University and the MD Degree in 1954 from New York University School of Medicine. He was elected to both Phi Beta Kappa and Alpha Omega Kappa.

He graduated from New York University in 1954 and then served his residency in internal medicine at Bellevue Hospital, New York. He remained there as a fellow in metabolic diseases and got a master's degree in genetics from New York University.

Hirschhorn and his wife Rochelle then travelled to Sweden where he undertook a fellowship in human genetics at the University of Uppsala under the mentorship of Marco Fraccaro. At the time, the Institute of Human Genetics in Uppsala was still called the Institute for Race Biology. During this year he learned a number of important techniques including tissue culture and completed the work that was eventually published in Science in 1959 on the incidence of familial hyperlipidaemia.

In 1958 he was appointed to the staff of the New York University School of Medicine. At that time Rochelle began her internship at Bellevue. At the university Hirschhorn started a genetics clinic and a course for medical students, ”at a time when genetics in the general medical opinion had much to do with fruit flies and nothing to do with people” (Barton Childs, M.D., of Johns Hopkins University Hospital). By the mid 1960s, his research group had had grown to 14 people who were crammed into 800 square feet.

He decided to move on, and in 1966 Hirschhorn became professor of paediatrics at Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York where he established a new medical genetics programme. In 1969 Hirschhorn was co-founder of the first program in genetic counselling in the United States at Sarah Lawrence College in Bronxville, N.Y. It remains the largest program of its kind in the country.

From 1968 to 1976 Hirschhorn was the Arthur J. and Nellie Z. Cohen professor of genetics at Mount Sinai School of Medicine. In 1976, Horace L. Hodes (1907-1989) stepped down as chair of paediatrics and Hirschhorn became interim chair. In 1977 he was named Herbert H. Lehman Professor and chairman of the department of paediatrics at Mount Sinai School of Medicine and paediatrician-in-chief at Mount Sinai Hospital. He stepped down from these positions in 1995 and returned to research as professor of paediatrics, human genetics and medicine.

Hirschhorn’s work in genetics began with studies of hypercholestgerolaemia and other lipid disorders and, while in Sweden, he the fields of tissue culture genetics and cytogenetics. At Mount Sinai he became involved with various aspects of biochemical genetics and, later, in molecular genetics. In the early 1960s he discovered the mixed lymphocyte reaction which was fundamental to the fields of cellular immunology and immunogenetics. He also made major contributions to the understanding of several inborn errors, including lysosomal enzyme defects and Menkes’ syndrome. Hirschhorn’s long-standing interest and leadership in medical genetics has resulted in the publication of more than 350 articles and book chapters and he was co-editor of Advances in Human Genetics for several years.

Hirschhorn met his future wife Rochelle Reibman while he was a junior medical student and she was a senior student at Barnard College. They were married five months later and have three children, Joel and Lisa who are also medically qualified, and Melanie, an attorney.
Rochelle Hirschhorn MD, also a major contributor in the field of human genetics, is (2008) Professor Emerita of Medicine, Cell Biology and Pediatrics, Research professor of Medicine, New York University.

On March 24, 2006, Kurt R. Hirschhorn received the 2006 March of Dimes/Colonel Harland Sanders Award for lifetime achievement in the field of genetic sciences.

By 2008 he was Professor Emeritus of Pediatrics, Genetics and Genomic Sciences, and Medicine, and Chairman Emeritus of the Department of Pediatrics, Mount Sinai School of Medicine.

  • Biographisches Handbuch der deutschsprachigen Emigration nach 1933.
    Volume 2. München 1983

  • Peter Beighton & Gretha Beighton:
    The Person Behind the Syndrome. Springer-Verlag London Limited, 1997.

  • Kurt Hirschhorn Interview, August 7, 2002.
    Oral History of Human Genetics Project. UCLA and Johns Hopkins University.

  • Barton Childs:
    Introductory Speech for Kurt Hirschhorn.
    The American Journal of Human Genetics, Chicago, February 2003, 72 (2): 241.

  • Frederick J. Suchy:
    Introduction of the American Pediatric Society's 2006 John Howland Award Recipient, Kurt Hirschhorn, M.D.

  • March of Dimes homepage, December 2006.

We thank Patrick Jucker-Kupper, Switzerland, for information submitted.

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