Gebhard Schumacher, 1924-2014

April 16, 2014

April 16, 2014

Gebhard Schumacher, MD, professor emeritus in the Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology and a former section chief of reproductive biology at the University of Chicago, died at Ingalls Memorial Hospital in Harvey, IL, on March 31. He was 89 years old.

A pioneer in the fields of infertility, contraception, and the immunology of reproduction, Schumacher developed new methods to detect and quantify soluble proteins in very small volumes of biological fluids or in tissue samples. He was particularly interested in cyclic fluctuations of proteins in cervical mucus and their role in facilitating or preventing pregnancy.

He established the first reproductive biology program at the University and, working with a medical student, designed and patented a device, the volumetric vaginal aspirator, to collect fluids used to distinguish between the fertile and infertile phases of the human female menstrual cycle. He and a colleague were among the first to characterize the acrosomal proteinase and proteinase inhibitor released by human sperm cells. This enzyme dissolves the zona pellucida, a protective covering on egg cells, enabling the sperm cell to penetrate and fertilize the egg, a crucial step toward beginning a new life.

Gebhard Freidrich Schumacher was born June 13, 1924, in Osnabrück, Germany and grew up in Paderborn. He intended to study medicine but World War II interrupted his plans. He was drafted into the German army in 1942. In 1945 he was captured by the Allied forces. He spent the last few months of the conflict in a British prisoner-of-war camp.

In September, 1945, Schumacher began medical school at the University of Göttingen. He completed an award-winning thesis on the use of gel electrophoresis to separate serum proteins and received his medical degree in 1951. After post-doctoral training with Nobel laureate Adolf Butenandt and a year at the Max Planck Institute for Virus Research, he entered a residency program in obstetrics at the University of Tübingen, where he also performed research on inflammation, serum proteins and surgery-related tissue trauma.

In 1963, Schumacher accepted a one-year position as an assistant professor of obstetrics and gynecology at the University of Chicago. At the University he worked with a team of renowned cytopathologists to study the influence of sex steroids on proteins present in cervical mucus – a topic that would dominate the rest of his career.

He was recruited back to the University of Chicago in 1967. He was able to secure funding from the National Institutes of Health and the Ford Foundation to create a new section of reproductive biology within the Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology. He was named chief of the new section in 1971, promoted to professor of obstetrics and gynecology in 1973 and was named to the divisional committee on immunology in 1974.

In the 1970s and 1980s, Schumacher served on a three World Health Organization task forces related to reproductive issues. He and colleague Stephen Usala, MD'82, PhD, filed their patent application in 1982, describing their fluid aspiration device as "an apparatus for estimating the period of peak fertility in the human menstrual cycle for the purposes of natural contraceptive practice and fertility enhancement." A small clinical trial showed that the device far more accurate than the current system, which relied on charts of daily temperatures measurements. A news story, published in 1985, quoted the director of the Chicago Roman Catholic Archdiocese's Pro-Life Office, who said he did not think "the Church would have any problems" with Schumacher's method.

Schumacher remained active in research throughout his career, publishing 85 academic papers and 55 book chapters and conference proceedings, primarily in German until the early 1960s and in English thereafter. He took emeritus status in 1990. He is survived by his wife, Anne Rose; two sons, Michael and Marc; and two grandchildren.

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