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In memoriam: J. Edwin Seegmiller, M.D.


June 02, 2006  |  

Pioneer in Human Genetics; Founding Member of the UCSD School of Medicine

Jarvis “Jay” Edwin Seegmiller, M.D., a pioneer in the field of human genetics, an advocate for research and education to support healthy aging, and an Emeritus Professor and founding faculty member at the University of California, San Diego (UCSD) School of Medicine, passed away on May 31 at UCSD’s Thornton Hospital in La Jolla after a brief respiratory illness.  He was 85.

Jarvis "Jay" Edwin Seegmiller, MD Services will be held at 11 a.m. on Friday June 9 at the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, 4741 Mt. Abernathy Avenue, San Diego.  Interment will be at El Camino Memorial Park following the service. In lieu of flowers, family members ask that donations be made to UCSD’s Stein Institute for Research on Aging (SIRA) by calling 858-534-6299.

Jarvis "Jay" Edwin Seegmiller, M.D.

“Jay Seegmiller was one of the giants of American medicine,” said Edward Holmes, M.D., Vice Chancellor of Health Sciences and dean of the School of Medicine at UCSD. “He and his trainees have made innumerable contributions to our understanding of the pathogenesis of many human disorders. He was also a wonderful colleague and mentor for many of us at UCSD and around the world.  He will be greatly missed, but his legacy will continue through the work of those he inspired.”

Seegmiller was one of the country’s leading researchers in intermediary metabolism, with a focus on purine metabolism and inherited metabolism.  He worked in the field of human biochemical genetics, with a special interest in the mechanisms by which genetically determined defects of metabolism lead to various forms of arthritis.  His laboratory identified a wide range of primary metabolic defects in metabolism responsible for development of gout, and pioneered the use of tissue culture to study these metabolic defects. 

He is perhaps best known for his discovery of the enzyme defect in Lesch-Nyhan Syndrome, a fatal disorder of the nervous system causing severe mental retardation and self-mutilation impulses.  As Director of the Human Biochemical Genetics Program at UCSD, Seegmiller’s investigations into the translation of genetic research and methods of prevention, detection and treatment of hereditary diseases led to Congressional testimony on the possibility of controlling genetic disease in the United States.  As a result, genetic referral centers have been established throughout the country. 

He joined the newly established UCSD School of Medicine in 1969 as head of the Arthritis Division of the Department of Medicine. There, he directed a research program in human biochemical genetics involving senior faculty from five departments within the School of Medicine.  While a professor at UCSD, he served as a Macy Scholar both at Oxford University and at the Basel Institute in Switzerland, as well as a Guggenheim Fellow at the Swiss Institute for Experimental Cancer Research in Lausanne. 

In 1983, he became the founding director of what is today UCSD’s Stein Institute for Research on Aging (SIRA). Even after his retirement, he continued to serve as Associate Director of SIRA from 1990 until his death.

“He had the foresight of proposing the formation of and then establishing a new Institute on Aging at UCSD before there was any such Institute in the entire UC system,” said Dilip Jeste, M.D., the Estelle and Edgar Levi Chair in Aging, Professor of Psychiatry and Neurosciences and current Director of SIRA.   “He was himself a role model of successful aging, and continued working in the SIRA till his very last days. A brilliant scientist, he was also a very kind and generous person. He took great pride in developing an outstanding Public Lecture Series on Aging that is broadcast on UCSD TV, and is watched by thousands of people. The SIRA is a lasting monument to Seegmiller's creativity and vision.”

Seegmiller was born June 22, 1920 in St. George, Utah.  He graduated from the University of Utah in 1942 and received his Doctor of Medicine with honors from the University of Chicago in 1948.  After he completed his internship at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore, Maryland, he trained with Bernard Horecker of the National Institute of Arthritis and Metabolic Disease at the National Institutes of Health. 

After work as a research associate at the Thorndike Memorial Laboratory of Harvard Medical School, and as a visiting investigator at the Public Health Research Institute of the City of New York, Seegmiller returned to the NIH in 1954, when he was appointed Senior Investigator of the National Institute of Arthritis and Metabolic Disease.  There he carried out biochemical and clinical studies of human hereditary disease, with a special interest in those causing various forms of arthritis.  He became Assistant Scientific Director of the Institute in 1960, and was appointed Chief of the section on Human Biochemical Genetics in 1966, becoming one of several NIH leaders recruited to help launch UC San Diego’s new medical school.

Seegmiller’s clinical activities included studies in life longevity in South America.  In 1974, he joined a team of notable scientists and traveled to the remote village of Vilcabamba in Ecuador, to find out what role genetic factors played in the population of the Andean villagers who comprised some of the longest-living people in the world.  His later work led to the discovery of free radicals and their damaging effects in the human ability to withstand diseases, bringing forward new investigations on human aging at SIRA.

The UCSD Alumni Association presented Seegmiller with a Distinguished Service Award in 1990.  In 2002, he shared his definition of research when he addressed new medical students at UCSD: “In my past 33 years teaching here at UCSD, one of my principle objectives has been to help new students realize that you each have capabilities you may not be aware of for finding new solutions to very old problems.  This awareness comes from your learning how to ask questions of Mother Nature that can be answered by her in results that tell you ‘yes’ or ‘no.’  That is what research is all about.”

Seegmiller was a member of the National Academy of Sciences, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and was the recipient of numerous prizes and awards in honor of his extraordinary achievements in science and medicine.  He received the United States Public Health Distinguished Service Award in 1969; and was honored as Master of the American College of Rheumatology (ACR) in 1992. 

Seegmiller was a member of the American Society of Biological Chemists, the American Chemical Society, the American Federation for Clinical Research, the American Society of Human Genetics, the American Rheumatism Association, the American Society for Clinical Investigation, the American Association for the Advancement of Science, and the Association of American Physicians. 

He was on the advisory boards for the National Genetics Foundation, the City of Hope Medical Center in Duarte, California, the Task Force on Endocrinology and Metabolism for NIH, the Executive Editorial Board for Analytical Biochemistry, and was President of the Western Association of Physicians in 1979.

A resident of La Jolla, California, Seegmiller is survived by his wife, Barbara; his daughters, Dale Seegmiller Maudlin of Solana Beach and Lisa Seegmiller Taylor of Palo Alto; sons Robert Edwin of San Diego and Richard Lewis of Sugarland, TX; stepsons Gary, David and Randy Ellertson; sisters Rose and Deola Bell and 17 grandchildren.   His first wife, Roberta, passed away in 1992.

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Media Contact: Leslie Franz, 619-543-6163,

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