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NIAMS Muscle Physiologist Podolsky Dies

Dr. Richard James "Dick" Podolsky, an internationally renowned muscle physiologist who made major contributions in the fields of muscle physiology and muscle structure, died Oct. 10, 2001, in Boston. He was 78.

He served as chief of the Laboratory of Physical Biology for more than 20 years. The lab was formerly part of the then National Institute of Arthritis, Diabetes, Digestive and Kidney Diseases, but moved to the new National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases in 1986.

Dr. Richard Podolsky
His contributions to muscle physiology laid the groundwork for scientists' understanding of muscle function and structure. He perfected an innovative technique for directly studying the internal components of muscle cells by carefully dissecting away the cell membrane. He was able to show that a calcium ion is necessary to activate the muscle and to regulate the level of contraction. Calcium is stored in an organelle, the sarcolemma reticulum, a specialized part of a cell. Podolsky showed that calcium is released from the sarcolemma reticulum when the muscle cell receives signals from the nerve and is taken back into the organelle once the signal ceases, firmly establishing calcium's role in the muscle contraction and activation process.

He also discovered that how a contracting muscle, when quickly released, restores itself to its original condition reveals a great deal about interactions between actin and myosin, two major proteins in the muscle cells.

During his later years, Podolsky was among the first to combine the leading-edge technique of fast-time x-ray diffraction — a technique for studying molecular structures based on how the x-ray waves bend and spread out when a specimen is exposed to radiation — and mechanical measurements on the living muscle, allowing him to track changes in the protein structures as the muscle lifts weight. His work also contributed to scientists' understanding that titin, a large fibrous protein that acts like a molecular spring, is responsible for the elasticity of resting muscle cells.

Born in Chicago in 1923, he studied at the University of Chicago for both undergraduate and graduate degrees, receiving his B.S. in physical science in 1946 and his Ph.D. in biophysics in 1952. He spent most of his research career at NIH, starting in 1962.

Podolsky will be fondly remembered as much for his scientific brilliance as for his gentle nature. He trained nearly 30 postdoctoral fellows, most of whom are now well-established investigators in the field of muscle biology. He is survived by two sons, Alexander and Paul, a grandson and a granddaughter.

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