Giulio Cantoni, 89; NIH Lab Chief, Biochemistry Researcher

By Patricia Sullivan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, August 3, 2005

Giulio Leonardo Cantoni, 89, who overcame internment in England and Canada as an enemy alien during World War II to become director of the National Institutes of Health's biochemistry laboratory for 40 years, died of congestive heart failure July 27 at his home in Chevy Chase.

Dr. Cantoni, a member of the National Academy of Sciences and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, established the National Institutes of Health's Laboratory of Cellular Pharmacology, now the Laboratory of General and Comparative Biochemistry at the National Institute of Mental Health, in 1954. He directed it until 1994.

He solved the fundamental biochemistry problem of how molecules in cells are methylated, a chemical process which leads to the synthesis of important molecules. In 1952, he first isolated S-adenosylmethionine (SAMe), which plays a vital role in nervous system health and cognitive function. Four years later, Dr. Cantoni and a colleague found that SAMe is naturally formed in the human body.

Dr. Cantoni published 150 scientific papers and co-wrote several scientific books. He also self-published through an online publisher "From Milan to New York By Way of Hell: Fascism and the Odyssey of a Young Italian Jew" (2000), drawn from his experiences as a young man.

In that book, he described his early life and his education as a physician at the University of Milan. Just as he earned his medical degree in 1938, the fascists abolished the Italian parliament and instituted anti-Semitic laws. Dr. Cantoni and his mother and sister fled Italy for England, en route to the United States.

The family was in line for a first-class berth on the ship Britannic, on June 11, 1940, the day after Italy declared war on England. Dr. Cantoni, who wrote that he was dressed in "an impeccable gabardine suit, with silk shirt and tie, gold cuff links and suede shoes," was pulled from the ship boarding line by British police and interned as an enemy alien, along with many Italians who had lived in England for years.

Dr. Cantoni and his fellow prisoners did not take their arrests seriously at first. After months in a tent camp in England, he was among those forced to transfer to a camp in Canada, where his status was changed to prisoner of war. His family was misinformed that he had been one of those drowned when another Canada-bound ship of incarcerated Italians sank. They were later told he had been sent to Australia.

Months later, after protests were raised about the imprisonment of scientists and Jewish refugees, Dr. Cantoni was allowed to go to Havana. From there, thanks in part to the sponsorship of an old friend, the conductor Arturo Toscanini, his long-expired visa to the United States was renewed, and on Nov. 18, 1941, he arrived in New York, where his mother and sister were waiting. He became a U.S. citizen in 1947.

He worked at the University of Michigan's medical school until 1945, then became an assistant professor of pharmacology at Long Island College of Medicine. He worked for the American Cancer Society for two years, starting in 1948, then joined Western Reserve University's medical school in Cleveland before coming to the Washington area for NIH.

In addition to his scientific accomplishments, Dr. Cantoni in 1968 founded the chamber music series for the Foundation for Advanced Education in the Sciences. He remained its music director until his death.

Survivors include his wife of 40 years, Gabriella Cantoni of Chevy Chase; two daughters, Allegra Cantoni Kuhl of Short Hills, N.J., and Serena Cantoni Kelly of Bethesda; and four grandchildren.

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