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Environmental Factor

May 2011

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Remembering James Fouts

By Eddy Ball
May 2011

James Fouts

Following his retirement from NIEHS, Fouts, shown above in file photo taken in the 1970s, traded his cardigan and lab coat for a priestly collar and a second career as a minister. (Photo courtesy of the NIEHS Archives)

The environmental health sciences community lost one of its pioneers April 15 with the death of pharmacologist and Episcopal priest James Fouts, Ph.D., at age 81.

After moving to Chapel Hill in 1970, Fouts served under former NIEHS directors Paul Kotin, M.D., and David Rall, M.D., Ph.D., as chief of the Laboratory of Pharmacology, scientific director, and senior scientific advisor prior to his retirement in 1985. He returned to NIEHS again for a few years in the 1990s as senior scientific advisor to then director Ken Olden, Ph.D.

Several people who knew Fouts during his years at NIEHS fondly remembered their colleague and friend. "Jim was a true gentleman and a scholar," said NIEHS/NTP Director Linda Birnbaum, Ph.D., who came to NIEHS in the mid-1980s.

Former NIEHS information officer and policy analyst Tom Hawkins, who worked at NIEHS for three decades, recalled his collaboration with Fouts on a 1986 history of the Institute. "Dr. Fouts had a gift for interpreting science in clear layman's terms, and putting the science itself in a larger perspective. I appreciated him both as a source to my work in the communications office and as a thoughtful elder in the science community."

Fouts was one of the senior scientists, during the formative years of NIEHS, who helped set an interdisciplinary and cross-organizational tone for research into the mechanisms of toxicity in terms of mutagenesis, carcinogenesis, and teratogenesis as toxicological end points of environmental exposures, publishing more than 250 peer-reviewed studies. He was concerned early on about the public health impacts of Superfund sites and garbage dumps, as well as the looming impact of global climate change.

Fouts' work contributed to the creation of the International Global Climate Change Panels under the United Nations and the World Health Organization. As a recognized expert on global warming, he was one of several scientists, industry leaders, and policy makers from the United States and Russia to be invited to the 1989 Greenhouse Glasnost, hosted by actor Robert Redford in Sundance, Utah.

Trained in biochemistry and pharmacology at Northwestern University, where he received his Ph.D., Fouts enjoyed many honors for his research. His awards included the Marple-Schweitzer Memorial Award in Chemistry from Northwestern University, the Abel Award in Pharmacology from the American Society of Pharmacology and Experimental Therapeutics, and the Claude Bernard Medal from the University of Montreal. 

After he left NIEHS, Fouts, who completed a Master of Divinity, summa cum laude, at Duke Divinity School in 1984, was ordained as an Episcopal priest in 1986. He spread a message of stewardship for God's creations at churches in Durham, Chapel Hill, and Franklin, N.C., up to his retirement in 2005. His obituary in the Asheville N.C. Citizen-Times described him as a gentle yet staunch environmentalist.

Fouts, who was living in Sylva, N.C., at the time of his death, is survived by his wife, Joan, children, and grandchildren. Friends and family celebrated his life in a service at St. John's Episcopal Church there April 19.

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