Walter Erich Stumpf passed away amidst immediate family members on November 13, 2012 at the age of eighty-five.
Walter Stumpf was born in 1927 in the town of Oelsnitz in the eastern part of Germany. There he spent his early years with his grandfather, a master carpet weaver, and his mother, a respected and beloved midwife. Showing potential as a student and youth leader in his pre-teen years, young Walter was tapped for a government scholarship to study at the reputable Freiherr von Fletcher Schule, a boarding school in Dresden. Those cherished, formative years were interrupted by World War II, starting with heavily reduced, off-site instruction as students were called to anti-aircraft duty. In December 1944, at the age of 17, he became a paratrooper and was sent to the field. He had barely reached the Front when he was captured by the British and placed in a prisoner of war camp in Belgium, under very difficult conditions, but still a better fate than his many classmates who never made it back. Released a year later, he returned home just in time for Christmas to the surprise of his relieved mother.
Under Russian occupation, Walter Stumpf managed to finish high school and start medical studies at the University of Leipzig (1946). Academically, culturally and socially, this was a good time despite all the difficulties and deprivations. In 1950, he continued his studies in Berlin. His medical degree at the Humboldt Universitaet (1952) came with a distinctive summa cum laude, although it brought little opportunity as long as he resisted the political imperatives of joining the right clubs and party. As a medical resident in the Charité Hospital’s Department of Neurology and Psychiatry, the Berlin Institute for Psychotherapy, and other hospitals (1952-57), Walter Stumpf benefitted from wide ranging exposure to various medical cases and specialists. After completing his specialization in neurology and psychiatry (1957), Walter was expected to join a hospital in East Germany, but instead succeeded in obtaining permission – still possible before the Berlin Wall – to move to West Germany. There he found a position at the University of Marburg in the Department of Neurology and Psychiatry (1958-61) and then added the University Strahleninstitut, where he worked in radiobiology and nuclear medicine (1961-62). Research limitations subsequently led him to a sabbatical year, sponsored by the German Research Foundation, at the University of Chicago in the Department of Pharmacology (1963-64).
One year in the United States became many, and his earlier efforts in Germany to localize drugs in the brain through autoradiography led to extensive research and ultimate success in Chicago. There Walter Stumpf built his research endeavor from scratch and solved a litany of problems across years of tedious trial and error. He developed a pioneering method for studying tissue-specific localization of diffusible drugs, which he called receptor microscopic autoradiography. Walter Stumpf’s work was a prerequisite for understanding tissue-specific functions of steroid hormones, such as estradiol, testosterone, the corticosteroids, thyroid hormone and vitamin D, and contributed invaluable basic knowledge for medicine, cancer research, drug development and risk assessment at a time when the term “molecular biology” was still inits infancy.
After a series of breakthroughs and publications, in addition to a Ph.D. in pharmacology from the University of Chicago in 1967, Walter accepted a position in 1970 at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He became Professor of Cell Biology and Pharmacology, and was a member of the Laboratories for Reproductive Biology and Neurobiology, with appointments in the Departments of Anatomy and of Pharmacology. Thus began a productive time of more than two decades in the laboratory characterized by new discoveries, many revealing multiple targets in the body for particular drugs and hormones, and leading to new concepts, many of which were ahead of his time. He was extraordinarily prolific and published more than 550 articles (over 300 on Medline).
His work was recognized in 1987 with an honorary degree, Dr.rer.biol.hum.h.c.,from the University of Ulm in Germany. In 1992, he followed his heart to Japan and spent three years with Chugai Pharmaceutical Company in Tokyo on the study of vitamin D analogues. In his fondness for Japan and deep understanding of Japanese culture, these years belonged to the happiest of his life. From 2001 to 2003, Walter worked as a research professor at the University of Sao Paulo, Brazil for the study of estrogen receptors in the uterus during implantation and early pregnancy. During this time he also wrote “Drug Localization in Tissues and Cells: Receptor Microscopic Autoradiography,” a “how-to” book for practitioners.
Receptor microscopic autoradiography provided an array of information that would have been impossible or difficult to obtain otherwise. Walter’s work on vitamin D, in particular, led to a significant paradigm shift. After a century of science that linked vitamin D only to bone-related calcium regulation at five classical sites, Walter used his receptor microscopic autoradiography to identify and characterize vitamin D in more than 50 target tissues in the body. His seminal 1979 report of vitamin D nuclear receptor distribution in the central nervous system (brain, spinal cord, pituitary) and the many discoveries of vitamin D target tissues that followed challenged the then-current calcitropic view of vitamin D and were initially rejected by the scientific community. Decades later, Walter Stumpf’s extensively published receptor microscopic autoradiography data and groundbreaking discoveries are now reflected in scientific acceptance of vitamin D’s central place in endocrinology and in prophylactic and therapeutic medicine.
Walter Stumpf took microscopic data of target actions at a cell biological level and linked it to our ultimate cosmic presence, the sun. He showed that vitamin D is not a vitamin, but a hormone, one he renamed “soltriol,” that acts at sites all over the body, and pointed to its main biological function of maintaining life and adapting vital functions to the solar environment. Walter Stumpf has been credited with laying the groundwork for the vitamin D era.
Walter Stumpf is survived by his wife of 51 years, Ursula Stumpf; and three daughters, Andrea Stumpf, Carolin Lloyd, with husband Robert Lloyd, and Silva Stumpf; and five grandchildren, Walter, Lyndon, Emily, Luke and Maxie. He is also survived by family in Germany.
He was preceded in death by his beloved son Martin.
A man of humility, Walter Stumpf pursued lifelong learning, had great sensitivity for and understanding of other cultures and languages, and at the same time dearly loved his home country. In his last years, he took memorable trips to Germany and Austria with the whole family, introducing even his grandchildren to the beauty of landscape, the joy of hiking, the pleasure of language and literature, and the value of culture and traditions.
A celebration of Walter Stumpf’s life will be held for friends and family on Sunday, December 2, 2012 at his home.
In recognition and appreciation of his love of nature, and his work on the land for ongoing enjoyment, those wishing to make a contribution in Walter Stumpf’s memory may consider a gift to the Conservation Fund of the North Carolina Botanical Garden at firstname.lastname@example.org
or Campus Box # 3375, UNC-CH, Chapel Hill, NC 27599.
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