Zdenek Hruban, MD, PhD, 1921- 2011

September 30, 2011

Zdenek Hruban, MD, PhD, professor emeritus of pathology at the University of Chicago and a pioneer in early electron microscopy, died at at the University of Chicago's Bernard Mitchell Hospital on September 18 after a long illness. He was 90.

He was among the first to describe peroxisomes, cellular organelles that were then called microbodies, and to identify a previously unrecognized response to cellular injury. Among his achievements is co-founding the Archives of the Czechs and Slovaks Abroad, a collection of more than 10,000 books, periodicals and other materials, now housed at the University of Chicago's Regenstein Library.

"Zdenek Hruban was one of the pioneers of applying electron microscopy to clinical pathology," said his former colleague Godfrey Getz, MD, professor and former chairman of pathology at the University of Chicago. "He was also a valued colleague, one who combined a gentle, low-key approach to research and teaching with an impish sense of humor."

In 1964, Hruban and a colleague published important research about microbodies, one of the last subcellular compartments to be recognized showing that they contained the enzyme uricase. Their paper, in the journal Science, was among the first to describe the core contents of these structures, providing clues to their primary function.

In 1963, Hruban and colleagues showed that damaged structures within a cell were sequestered and degraded, and that this was a normal and beneficial response to cellular injuries such as starvation or oxygen deprivation. They named the process focal cytoplasmic degradation.

Defects in this process, now known as autophagy, have since been linked to many diseases, including cancer, cardiomyopathy and neurodegenerative defects. Because his original studies were so frequently cited by subsequent authors in the field, Hruban's original paper and a follow-up publication were later heralded as "citation classics."

"I've known Zdenek for more than 50 years," said his colleague Louis Cohen, MD, professor of medicine at the University of Chicago. "He was a superb teacher, an excellent pathologist and a remarkable investigator. He also was one of the kindest, shyest men I've had the pleasure of knowing, an extraordinarily good human being with a profound interest in things besides himself."

Born June 21, 1921, in Prerov, Czechoslovakia, Hruban began to prepare to study medicine at Masaryk University in Brno after high school. But during World War II, the universities in the country were closed by the Germans, so he continued his studies at the University of Rostock in Germany, earning his pre-medical degree with honors in 1943. After the war, followed by a year in the Czechoslovakian army, he returned to the study of medicine at Charles University in Prague and Hradec Králové.

After his family began receiving threats from the Communist apparatchiks and with fresh memories of life under Nazi oppression, Hruban decided to escape Czechoslovakia. On June 26, 1948, he crossed the border into Germany with the help of a guide sent to him by his sister, who had left ahead of him.

"I had a rucksack with only some personal documents, dried salami and an English dictionary," he later recalled. "My sister who lived in Germany … sent a guide who took me across the border. He was a very brave man, [with] no sense of danger. We crossed at night."

He spent the next year as a nurse trainee in Horton Road Mental Hospital, in Gloucestershire, England, and then worked at refugee camps for the International Refugee Organization while waiting for an American visa. He moved to Wisconsin in 1951, and in 1952 he was awarded a scholarship at the University of Chicago, where he completed his MD (with honors) in 1956 and his PhD in pathology in 1963. He became a U.S. citizen in 1957.

After an internship at Chicago's Presbyterian Hospital, he returned to the University of Chicago to complete residency and postdoctoral fellowship training, supported by the United States Public Health Service and the American Cancer Society. He joined the faculty at the University as an instructor in pathology in 1960, rising to assistant professor in 1963, associate professor in 1967 and professor in 1973. He became a professor emeritus in 1991.

Hruban published 80 scientific papers and 40 abstracts. He co-authored the book, Microbodies and Related Particles, published in 1969, which was translated into Russian in 1972. Academic honors include election to the Alpha Omega Alpha medical honor society in 1955 and Sigma XI Scientific Research Society in 1957. He received the University of Chicago Alumni Achievement Award in 1990.

"He loved teaching in the medical school," said his wife, Jarmila Hruban, whom he married in 1955. "He was particularly fond of injecting his mischievous sense of humor into his lectures."

A life-long supporter of Czech culture, Hruban was a member of the Czechoslovak Council on Higher Education and one of the organization's past presidents. He was a founding member of the Czechoslovak Society of Arts and Sciences, a member of the Masaryk Club at the University of Chicago, serving as its president in 1957-58.

In 1998, he was awarded the Medal of Merit of the First Degree by the president of the Czech Republic, Vaclav Havel for "lifetime efforts in the promotion of Czech-American relations." In 2001 he received the Komensky Medal from his home town Prerov, Czech Republic.

An avid lover of nature, he also provided medical expertise to the Lincoln Park Zoo in Chicago and published studies on tissue abnormalities in reptiles and amphibians from the zoo.

Hruban is survived by his wife of 56 years, Jarmila Hruban; three children Paul, Ralph (and his wife Claire), and Diana Quinn (and her husband Joseph); and five granddaughters, Zoe, Emily and Carolyn Hruban, and Mila and Katie Quinn.

Services will be private. In lieu of flowers, the family requests that donations be made to the University of Chicago Library to support the Archives of Czechs and Slovaks Abroad at the University of Chicago: C/O June Farris, Room 263, Regenstein Library, 1100 East 57th Street, Chicago, IL 60637.

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