The NIEHS family said goodbye to a pioneering researcher and friend on April 23 when Sam Wilson, M.D., institute leader and chief scientist, passed away peacefully at his home in North Carolina. He was 82 years old.
Wilson was deputy director of NIEHS and the National Toxicology Program (NTP) from 1996 to 2007, during which time he collaborated with then-director Ken Olden, Ph.D., to expand the NIEHS mission to include the study of gene-environment interactions. From 2007 to 2009, he served as acting NIEHS and NTP director.
In 2015, Wilson received the National Institutes of Health Director's Award, which is the highest honor an NIH researcher can receive. One year later, he was named an NIEHS Champion of Environmental Health Research.
During his time at NIEHS, Wilson served as head of the institute’s DNA Repair and Nucleic Acid Enzymology Group in the Laboratory of Genome Integrity and Structural Biology. He also held a secondary appointment in the Epigenetics and Stem Cell Biology Laboratory.
“Sam was an incredible friend and a role model to many of us at the institute,” said NIEHS and National Toxicology Program Director Rick Woychik, Ph.D. “He was a great example of how to be a top-notch scientist as well as a warm and engaging colleague to others.”
A trailblazer in DNA research
After earning his medical degree from Harvard Medical School and conducting postdoctoral research in biochemistry at Dartmouth Medical School and the National Heart Institute, Wilson began his career in 1970 at the National Cancer Institute (NCI). During the next two decades at that institute, he achieved numerous successes, most notably becoming chief of NCI’s Nucleic Acid Enzymology Section of the Laboratory of Biochemistry in 1986.
In 1992, he was recruited by the University of Texas Medical Branch in Galveston, Texas, to establish the Sealy Center for Molecular Science, with the goal of understanding cellular stress responses, DNA damage, and cellular signaling pathways.
Wilson transitioned to NIEHS in 1996, becoming deputy director of the institute and NTP. He led a top-tier research group that made major strides in understanding both the environment’s role in genetic damage and a DNA repair pathway called base excision repair.
“He understood that scientific questions require a multifaceted approach that includes detailed mechanistic studies,” said Bill Beard, Ph.D., an NIEHS staff scientist.
“Sam knew that biological events occur in a coordinated and controlled manner, dictated by their environmental and molecular attributes,” Beard added. “He made seminal contributions to the structural characterization as well as the biological roles of numerous enzymes involved in base excision DNA repair.”
For more information on Wilson’s illustrious research career, see this December 2020 Environmental Factor story.
Leader, mentor, friend
When former NIEHS Director David Schwartz, M.D., departed federal service in 2007, the institute suddenly was without a leader, but it did not have to look far to find one. Wilson became acting director until 2009, when Linda Birnbaum, Ph.D., took the helm.
“I remember watching Sam testify before Congress when he began serving as our acting director,” said Traci Hall, Ph.D., an NIEHS senior scientist. “His calm demeanor reassured them that NIEHS was committed to advancing environmental health with a balanced approach. His trustworthy leadership restored morale.”
Bill Copeland, Ph.D., head of the NIEHS Genome Integrity and Structural Biology Laboratory, added, “Sam was larger than life, a giant in the field of DNA repair. He has influenced scientist across the globe, and his legacy will live on through his alumni.”
Wilson is survived by his wife, Dorothea, his daughter, Katherine Kohler, and seven grandchildren.
(Ian Thomas is a public affairs specialist in the NIEHS Office of Communications and Public Liaison, and a regular contributor to the Environmental Factor.)