Dr. Frank Fitch Recognition

Jun 17, 2021
By Thomas Gajewski
Frank Fitch

Frank Fitch recognition
By Thomas Gajewski

April 8, 2021

Many of you may have heard that Dr. Frank W. Fitch, one of the founding leaders of the Immunology community at University of Chicago, passed away this week.  Most of you have not likely met Frank personally.  He had a rare and special teaching style that encouraged independent thought and experience-based learning, which helped to drive an excitement for research.  When I was an undergrad in his BioSci class in 1983 called “Defense Mechanisms”, he placed a tetanus toxoid intradermal injection in his left forearm right in front of us, so that each day we could follow the development of a delayed-type hypersensitivity reaction and the cardinal signs of inflammation.  It’s interesting that recognizing DTH reactions has become important again, as the mechanism for delayed local skin reactions at SARS-Cov2 booster injection sites, just published in the New England Journal of Medicine.  In that same class he would navigate the discussion towards a paradox, then ask students to propose ideas that could explain it—i.e. to generate hypotheses.  He would sit in silence—sometimes for multiple minutes—until someone primed the pump with some initial thoughts.  What patience!  While in is lab doing my PhD work in the late 80s, he ran the laboratory more or less like an artist colony, his philosophy being that if you assemble a group of smart and motivated people in the same room and provided them resources that something interesting and novel would eventually emerge.  His job was to secure funding and then tweak your thinking and direction based on his experience and wisdom.  And when he presented your work as part of a big talk at a major conference, he fully acknowledged you as the driver of the project.  All of these practices converged to generate inspiration toward becoming a scientist.

Frank was too humble around his major accomplishments and leadership roles.  Most are not even listed on his CV.  He was a servant to the greater Immunology community in multiple ways—President of AAI, Editor-in-chief of Journal of Immunology. While at the helm of JI he transformed the traditionally paper journal into a digital format.  He served as President of FASEB, where one of his most important roles was to testify before congress to advocate for increased funding for biomedical research.  While at UChicago, he was promoted to Professor in 1967.  He served as Associate Dean for Education Affairs, Associate Dean for Academic Affairs, and Dean for Academic Affairs, and was Leader of the Immunology program within the Cancer Center.  He also became Director of the Ben May Labs, and retooled it as the Ben May Institute for Cancer Research, paving the way for the Department-level status it now holds.

Frank’s primary research accomplishments, I believe, are relatively under-recognized.  He and his collaborators worked out the techniques for culturing T cells long-term.  This enabled the derivation of T cell clones, which could then be studied for various functional properties.  Some T cell clones were found to be cytolytic, and some were proliferative in an autocrine fashion. Antigen specificity and MHC restriction became better defined.  He then learned the new monoclonal antibody technology at the time, and had a bold idea that would seem high-risk by NIH funding standards today.  He proposed to immunize rats with cytolytic T cell clones versus proliferative T cell clones, to generate mAbs that defined these functional subsets.  The output from this project was enormous—the key Abs were specific for what eventually were termed CD4 and CD8, the surface markers that defined these functional cell subsets.  Screening for other Abs that blocked T cell activation or labeled surface molecules led to reagents against MHC molecules, LFA-1, Thy1, CD45, and ultimately the holy grail—the T cell antigen receptor (TCR).  Using his expertise in mAb technology, he collaborated with multiple individuals including Geof Greene, who generated the first mAb against the estrogen receptor, which helped define its expression and biology.  During this time he trained 35 graduate students, and ultimately received a mentoring award from AAI.

Most of you know that in Frank’s honor, an endowed lectureship series was established that has featured seminars by Mark Davis, Tak Mak, Art Weiss, Bob Schreiber, Tyler Jacks, and Lisa Coussens.  While that seminar has been temporarily on hold due the Covid-19 pandemic, when it resumes we will use it as the forum for a mini-symposium and recognition event for the impact Frank has made on Immunology and our institution.  Those of us who were close to him will miss his intellect, his dry sense of humor, his humility, his career support, and his character.  

Dr. Frank Fitch's interview with The American Association of Immunologists: https://www.aai.org/About/History/Past-Presidents-and-Officers/FrankWFitch