Professor George Joseph Popják, MD, DSc, FRS
May 5, 1914–December 30, 1998
Family and friends learned with sadness that George Popják had died in his sleep on the evening of December 30th, 1998 at his home in Westwood, Los Angeles, California. Professor Popják will be remembered as a talented pianist and sculptor and as a brilliant scientist who was recognized internationally as one of the major investigators who defined the reactions involved in the biosynthesis of cholesterol.
He was born May 5th, 1914, in Kiskundorozsma, Hungary. In his unfinished biography, Professor Popják wrote that his childhood was far from ordinary. After the Versaille Treaty, his village became part of Yugoslavia. Because neither of his parents had Hungarian names, the Treaty dictated that he go to a Serbian, and not Hungarian, school. This proved difficult initially because he knew neither the Serbian language nor the Cyrillic alphabet. His mother, a school teacher, helped him learn the language. His father was an engineer, involved in building roads, maintaining bridges, and mapping. In 1920, the family moved deep into Serbia and subsequently into Macedonia, as his father obtained new work. These areas had few Hungarians and different cultures. In 1924, when he was 10, he and his mother moved back to Szeged, in Hungary. When school finished for the day, he tutored other children. With the money he earned, he was able to buy himself a piano when he was 17 years old. At 18, since he loved physics and math, he decided to go to the University in Budapest to become a physicist. However, he was persuaded by relatives to stay in Szeged and attend Medical School. He entered the Royal Francis Joseph University, Hungary and graduated with an MD, Sub Auspiciis Gubernatoris. Students with stellar academic records could apply for the latter degree, which represented the highest university distinction for graduating students in all of Hungary. In a ceremony attended by the most distinguished citizens of the town and preceded by the university choir singing the national anthem, he gave a scientific presentation and then was presented with the special diploma and a gold ring. By this time, he had begun his scientific career and had already published papers on research carried out as a medical student.
George Popják began his life work as a demonstrator in anatomy at the Royal Francis Joseph University, Szeged, then as a trainee pathologist at the University of Szeged. He left Hungary and moved to the University of London, England in 1939, before the start of World War II. After 2 years as a research assistant in the Department of Pathology, the Postgraduate Medical School, Hammersmith Hospital, he was appointed lecturer in the Department of Pathology at St. Thomas’s Hospital Medical School. In 1947 he joined the scientific staff of the National Institute for Medical Research, London. It was there he embraced biochemistry as his interests developed in lipid metabolism, particularly on the detail and complexity of the biosynthesis of sterols and in the synthesis of lipids during lactation. From 1953 to 1962 he was Director of the Medical Research Council’s Experimental Radiopathology Research Unit at Hammersmith Hospital, London. In 1962 he and John Cornforth, FRS were named co-directors of the Chemical Enzymology Laboratory at Shell Research, Sittingbourne, Kent, England, a position he held until his move to the University of California, Los Angeles, California in 1968. There, he held appointments as Professor of Biological Chemistry and Psychiatry until his official retirement from UCLA in 1984. As Professor Emeritus he remained active in research in the Atherosclerosis Research Unit of the Department of Medicine at UCLA, until his recent ill health.
In the 1940s, he began studying lipid synthesis in pregnant and lactating animals. These studies were aided by the availability of radiolabeled acetate. His interests in this area continued into the 1960s. In the early 1950s, he and Professor Cornforth, both independently and as collaborators for nearly 20 years, began to study the reactions that led to the biosynthesis of cholesterol. The use of substrates containing radio or stable isotopes in well defined stereospecific positions within the precursor molecules, led to highly significant results and an enhanced understanding of the metabolic and enzymatic steps that were required for the synthesis of cholesterol. This combination of enzymology, stereochemistry, and the use of specific radiolabeled substrates led to the elucidation of the specific 3-dimensional details of how cholesterol and the many intermediates in the pathway are arranged and react. Later studies, carried out in the USA, identified an alternative pathway, termed the mevalonic acid shunt, by which mevalonate was converted to nonisoprenoid products.
George Popják received many prestigious awards, including the Ciba Medal (1966) from the British Biochemical Society, the Stouffer Prize (1967), the Davy Medal (1968) from the Royal Society, London, the Award in Lipid Chemistry form the American Oil Chemists Society (1976), and the Vanderbilt University Centennial Medal (1978). In 1961 he received his DSc from the University of London and was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society, London. He wrote more than 230 scientific papers and edited or wrote several books. He was particularly pleased with a textbook that developed from a course on lipids, taught at UCLA over many years. This book, entitled LIPIDS: Chemistry, Biochemistry and Nutrition, coauthored with James F. Mead, Rosyln B. Alfin-Slater, and David R. Howton was published in 1986 by Plenum Press.
In 1976, in his lecture accepting the award form the American Oil Chemists Society, Professor Popják acknowledged his many collaborators by remarking that the Society, in honoring him, honored the many associates who had worked with him. He insisted that without their contributions he could not be there. To his many collaborators, he expressed his deepest gratitude. He is remembered for his interest, encouragement, and the support of young investigators. With them he always fostered a dedication to research, and in that research was a very special vocation, charged with adventure, expectation, and the excitement of new discovery. The Popják legacy is being perpetuated at UCLA by the establishment of a special scholarship bearing his name. A George J. Popják Scholar is to be appointed annually in the Atherosclerosis Research Unit of the Department of Medicine at UCLA to recognize and to honor this truly remarkable man.
He is survived by Hasel, his wife of 57 years, by cousins in Hungary and in Canada, and by his goddaughters. He will be sadly missed by colleagues and friends.⇓