‘NIH Legend’ Gorden Retires
NIDDK director emeritus and senior investigator Dr. Phillip Gorden has retired after 55 years of service to NIH.
“I cannot imagine another institution besides NIH which could have given me such a depth of opportunities,” he said.
Described as “a legend at NIH” by NIH deputy director for intramural research Dr. Michael Gottesman, Gorden touched nearly every facet of NIDDK. As a physician-scientist, he contributed to seminal discoveries in endocrinology, including advances in insulin biology and diabetes. As NIDDK director (1986-1999), he launched multiple practice-changing clinical trials. As a colleague and mentor, he leaves an immeasurable impact, not only because of his exceptional scientific acumen, but also because of his exceptional humanity.
“Phil’s rare combination of deep medical knowledge, compassion, humility and personal warmth characterized his lengthy service to NIDDK, NIH and the nation,” said former NIDDK director Dr. Allen Spiegel, now dean emeritus of Albert Einstein College of Medicine.
Early NIH work
An officer in the Public Health Service, Gorden joined NIH in 1966 as a senior investigator at NIDDK’s precursor institute and became clinical director in 1974. He contributed to many scientific breakthroughs, including describing the mechanism of insulin, identifying the insulin receptor and its role in diabetes; discovering the proinsulin molecule, which led to the production of biosynthetic insulin; developing the first medical treatment for ectopic ACTH syndrome, a disease characterized by excess levels of cortisol; and conducting the first radiation therapy for the growth-hormone disorder, acromegaly.
Gorden was responsible for bringing NIDDK science from the lab to the clinic and back again. By treating patients with rare forms of insulin resistance, he was able to observe how hormones worked in people, in addition to under a microscope.
“He established the importance of bedside to the bench and back to the bedside that is a unique feature of the NIH intramural program,” said Gottesman.
Gorden’s patient-centered approach to scientific discovery was a hallmark of his work. NIDDK scientific director Dr. Michael Krause said Gorden is “emblematic of the best NIH has to offer humanity, shifting paradigms and our understanding of human biology with a patient-centric focus on effectively treating disease.”
NIDDK’s Dr. Rebecca Brown, a longtime colleague of Gorden’s, concurred. “His science always started and ended with patient questions,” she said. “He has the ability to cut through reams of data with to-the-point questions about the relevance of the science to human disease.”
From Clinical Researcher to NIDDK Director and Back Again
In 1976, Gorden took a sabbatical at the University of Geneva to further his research on hormone receptors. He returned to NIH in 1978, and after several leadership positions in NIDDK’s Diabetes Branch, became NIDDK’s seventh director in 1986.
As institute director, Gorden oversaw the launch of several landmark, multi-center clinical trials that helped shape diabetes treatment and management, including the Diabetes Complications and Control Trial, Modification of Diet in Renal Disease study and Diabetes Prevention Program.
Under his leadership, NIDDK also funded the establishment of several, multi-site research centers across its mission areas, including kidney and urologic diseases, cystic fibrosis and obesity and nutrition.
After 13 years, Gorden returned full time to clinical research in NIDDK’s Diabetes, Obesity, and Endocrine Branch, where he’s been a section chief since 2005. His work on severe forms of insulin resistance led to breakthroughs in treating lipodystrophy, a rare disease characterized by loss of fatty tissue. Based on clinical trials led by Gorden and his team, the Food and Drug Administration approved leptin for generalized lipodystrophy in 2014.
“The persistent efforts Gorden and his colleagues took to get FDA approval for leptin replacement therapy to treat certain forms of lipodystrophy are a perfect example of his career-long ability to bring research from bench to the bedside resulting in a positive impact on human heath around the globe,” said Krause.
Impact as Mentor, Colleague
Gorden’s indelible impact is also evident in the sentiments shared by the many people whose careers he’s touched over the decades.
“I have known Phil Gorden since my time as a fellow at NIH 50 years ago,” said Dr. C. Ronald Kahn, chief academic officer of Joslin Diabetes Center. “He is truly a great translational scientist and a unique individual, whose humanism and support for his colleagues and trainees has been foundational for literally hundreds of physician-scientists who have gone on to make their own important marks on the field.”
Dr. Jeffrey S. Flier, Gorden’s fellow in the 1970s who later became dean of Harvard Medical School, said, “Gorden was a critical mentor in every phase of my career: a master clinician who put patient welfare first, a translational scientist at the leading edge of metabolic science and an inspiring institutional leader.”
Dr. Elif Oral, a University of Michigan professor who trained with Gorden (1996-2002), said his wisdom still guides her work today.
“These days, when I need to talk to a trainee, I always ask myself what Dr. Gorden would say,” she said. “He provided the kind of mentorship that is above and beyond what any trainee can anticipate.”
Gorden has published more than 400 papers, lectured frequently around the world and received many distinguished awards–including this year’s Endocrine Society lifetime achievement award. Yet, when asked which career accomplishment makes him most proud, he focuses not on his individual successes, but on the collaborative efforts he values so deeply.
“In each position I have held, I tried to make sure NIDDK was a ‘we’ institute rather than an ‘I’ institute,” he replied. “The sense of camaraderie and cooperation is very important to the ‘genes’ of an institute.”
In retirement, Gorden looks forward to spending quality time with his beloved wife of 62 years, Vivian, their 2 sons and their wives, and 3 grandchildren.
“Phil will be truly missed as one of NIH’s most conscientious and accomplished leaders and scientists,” said NIDDK director Dr. Griffin Rodgers. “He instilled compassion, integrity and wisdom into everything he did—whether treating patients, conducting groundbreaking research or leading one of NIH’s largest institutes. He set an example that few might match, but to which we can all aspire. I’m privileged to call him my mentor, colleague and friend—and we all wish him the best in retirement.”
To learn more about Gorden’s career in his own words, watch this 2019 recording https://www.youtube.com/watch?app=desktop&v=Bv-r7Ja0OTk.