Radovan Zak, PhD, 1931-1999

September 21, 1999

A distinguished scientist and a popular teacher, Radovan Zak, PhD, 68, a pioneer in the study of heart and skeletal muscle, died September 21, 1999 at the University of Chicago Hospitals. He was treated for several years for heart disease and died from a thrombosis that occurred after a surgical procedure. Zak was a professor in three departments at the University of Chicago: medicine; neurobiology, pharmacology and physiology; and organismal biology and anatomy. He was also a member of the committee on cell physiology.

Professor Zak was a world authority on the biology and biochemistry of contractile proteins, the building blocks of heart and skeletal muscle. He studied the factors that control muscle-cell growth and differentiation and the genes that code for muscle proteins. His laboratory discovered two of the eight genes responsible for the different forms of myosin, one of the most important components of heart and skeletal muscle. He also mapped out the natural history of cardiac myosin production, charting how different combinations of contractile proteins are produced by the heart of a fetus, a child, an adult, and in response to cardiovascular disease.

His research was particularly important in helping cardiologists understand the abnormal growth and thickening of the heart wall that can occur in response to elevated blood pressure or partial blockage of the aorta.

"Radovan Zak was a wonderful colleague, a brilliant teacher and an exceedingly clever scientist," said cardiologist, Rory Childers, MD, professor of medicine at the University of Chicago. "His research, although it involved very basic science, was immediately real and valuable to practicing doctors. He was someone we often turned to when we had difficult questions."

"He was one of the best loved and most versatile professors in this University and a delightful and sought-after speaker," added Ernest Page, MD, professor emeritus, in the departments of medicine and of neurobiology, pharmacology, and physiology at the University of Chicago, who collaborated with Zak in research projects.

"Professor Zak was a brilliant scientist, a mentor and teacher of the first rank who nurtured generations of students, and a wonderful, gentle man," recalled cardiologist Morton Arnsdorf, MD, professor of medicine. "He was among a core of basic and clinical scientists who brought basic laboratory research to the bedside, making the University of Chicago's cardiology section a powerful national and international force in investigating heart disease. Despite his respected position and busy schedule, he was a modest man and always had time to teach, to listen, and to help other scientists deal with important problems.

Born in Prague, Czechoslovakia, on June 15, 1931, Zak earned a BS degree in chemistry and physics from Prague University in 1952 and an RN Dr. in biochemistry in 1954 and taught chemistry at the Prague University Medical School and later physiology at the Czechoslovakia Academy of Science while he completed his PhD in biochemistry from the Academy.

He came to the United States in 1961 as a research fellow at Northwestern University Medical School, then, in 1963, began a post-doctoral fellowship in the laboratory of Professor Murray Rabinowitz, at the University of Chicago, where he developed his interest in the molecular biology of contractile proteins. He joined the faculty at the University of Chicago in 1965 as an instructor, set up his own laboratory and rose through the ranks to become a full professor in 1978. He won the Quantrell Award for outstanding teaching in 1989 and the University's Gold Key Award, which recognizes faculty for loyal and outstanding service, in June 1999.

The author of more than 200 papers in distinguished scientific journals, Zak also served as an associate editor for several journals, including Circulation Research and Molecular and Cellular Biochemistry, and was a member of the editorial board of several other journals.

He is survived by his wife, Emilia, of Chicago; two sons, Joseph, of Santiago, Chile, and Patrick, of Oakland, California; and one grandson, Patrick's son Nicholas.

A memorial service is being arranged for January at the University's Bond Chapel.

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