Former NIAMS Director Katz Remembered
Music flowed from Masur Auditorium as more than 400 gathered on May 3 to celebrate the life of Dr. Stephen I. Katz, former director of the National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases.
Katz passed away unexpectedly in December 2018 at the age of 77 while serving as head of NIAMS. His career at NIH began as a researcher at the National Cancer Institute in 1974 before he became the second director of NIAMS in 1995.
The memorial event featured NIH director Dr. Francis Collins, two former NIH directors and several past and present institute leaders. Katz’s three children also spoke at the event.
“Steve was many things, and one of them was a musician,” Collins said shortly before picking up a guitar to join members of the Affordable Rock ‘n’ Roll Act band—which Katz had belonged to, as a guitarist—to perform the Beatles’ Eight Days A Week. The song was one of several the Katz family recorded on a CD titled Stray Katz, in a studio session celebrating Katz’s 75th birthday. Katz’s daughter, Karen, joined the band on stage.
Collins spoke highly of Katz’s dedication to mentoring and training to help the next generation of scientists. In recognition of these efforts, Collins said that NIH has created a new R01 program named for Katz.
“We want to encourage risk-taking we believe could be good for us,” he said. These grants will target researchers just launching their independent careers who want to explore novel ideas they may not have been able to pursue while working in someone else’s lab.
Dr. Robert H. Carter, acting director of NIAMS and longtime colleague of Katz, served as master of ceremonies for the event and shared how the institute pulled together to continue his legacy.
“Steve was the center of the NIAMS universe. The planets revolved around Steve,” Carter said. “When he passed, the planets wobbled.”
Dr. Elias Zerhouni, NIH director from 2002 to 2008, echoed that sentiment, noting that Katz’s passing left an enormous void felt across NIH.
“The NIH forest has many trees, but not all are equal,” Zerhouni said. “Steve was a special tree. The roots of his tree ran deep.”
Dr. Lawrence Tabak, NIH principal deputy director, was one of several speakers who was recruited to NIH in large part because of Katz’s salesmanship. When Tabak arrived at housing on the NIH campus, Katz was one of the first people at the front door, with a bottle of champagne and a loaf of challah bread.
Katz’s love for the NIH family went well beyond house calls for new leaders. Mark Katz, Katz’s oldest son, remembered that his brother, Ken, and sister, Karen, often found themselves in the presence of NIH employees thanks to their father’s generosity.
“Thanksgiving Day would have seemed incomplete without the fellows of the derm branch,” Mark said [Katz had been head of NCI’s Dermatology Branch].
While Katz’s passion for the NIH community was a consistent theme that ran through the ceremony, Tabak also stressed that the NIAMS director’s scientific efforts benefited individuals across the globe through improved medical care.
“There are mensches,” Tabak said using a Yiddish term for a person of integrity and honor, “and there are mensch godol, a once-in-a-generation mensch.” Godol is a Hebrew word for big.
Dr. Richard Hodes, director of the National Institute on Aging, noted that Katz was a team player who put NIH’s goals ahead of his own.
“There was not a competitive bone in his body in the sense that all his competition was directed to common goals,” Hodes said. “It was never Steve over anyone else.”
Dr. Vivian Pinn, former director of NIH’s Office of Research on Women’s Health, was among the speakers who experienced Katz’s influence. She remembered him for his mentorship and support of both her office and her career.
“Dr. Katz was enthusiastic about promoting women and minority researchers,” she said.
Dr. Story Landis, former director of the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke, remarked on how wise, kind and generous Katz was, echoing the sentiments of other speakers.
“Steve’s door was always open and his interest was genuine,” she said. “His advice was heartfelt and honest.”
Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, said he recalled first meeting Katz in the halls of the Clinical Center when both were young researchers caring for patients. For complex dermatology-related questions, there was one researcher Fauci turned to for consultation.
“Steve was a consummate physician,” he said, “encyclopedic in his knowledge, with an endearing bedside manner.”
Dr. Heidi Kong, head of the NIAMS cutaneous microbiome and inflammation section, also benefited from Katz’s deep knowledge of dermatology. She noted Katz’s influence could be felt around the world, as many of those he mentored from the United States, Asia and Europe are now leaders with their own mentees. The event was broadcast live around the world online, giving his international colleagues and mentees the opportunity to watch.
“I would not be here today at the NIH, doing the research I love, if it had not been for the mentorship of Steve,” Kong said.
Dr. Harold Varmus, NIH director from 1993 to 1999, recruited Katz to be NIAMS director. Whether tackling important NIH business or strumming a guitar, Katz was content to be in the background doing vital, if unglamorous, tasks, Varmus recalled.
“He worked for the benefit of institutions, and people affected by them, not for his own ends,”
In closing remarks, Carter noted the creation of the Katz Scholar as part of the dermatology training program, and the naming of a conference room in honor of Katz.
Collins and the band closed the event with a Hebrew song, B’shana Haba-ah. This was a Katz favorite and one that he taught to Collins. The NIH director noted that a few particular lyrics summed up the spirit of the event.
“Now the torch must be passed in hope and not in sorrow and a promise to make a new start.”
A full video version of the event is available at https://videocast.nih.gov/launch.asp?27489.