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Dr. Lawrence Grossman, 81; Biochemist, Decorated Veteran

Lawrence Grossman conducted pioneering research on how cells repair DNA. A World War II combat veteran who was twice shot down, he made saving lives his mission.
Lawrence Grossman conducted pioneering research on how cells repair DNA. A World War II combat veteran who was twice shot down, he made saving lives his mission. (Johns Hopkins University)

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By Yvonne Shinhoster Lamb
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, January 26, 2006

Lawrence Grossman, 81, an internationally known biochemist and a pioneer in the field of DNA repair, died Jan. 13 of complications of a broken hip and Alzheimer's disease at Gilchrist Center for Hospice Care in Towson, Md.

Dr. Grossman, a World War II combat veteran who left the war with a desire to save lives, was former chairman of the Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology at what is now the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health.

He conducted seminal research on how cells repair DNA damage caused by aging. Significant among his achievements was his development of a test for measuring the genetic repair capacity of individuals. The test provides a tool for assessing who is at risk for skin cancer or other tumors with environmental causes.

In one study, Dr. Grossman found that reduced DNA repair capacity appears to contribute to basal cell carcinoma, especially in people with a history of severe sunburn.

"We are all exposed to sunlight, and we've evolved through exposure to sunlight," Dr. Grossman told the Baltimore Sun in 1993. "The fact that we've survived for eons says we have a great deal of repair capacity. What we're looking at are the variations in the population."

A New York native, Dr. Grossman quit high school in 1941 to help support his family. A month later, the United States entered World War II, and soon after he joined the Navy as an aviation cadet.

At 18, he was shot down in his fighter off the coast of Okinawa. He spent two days floating alone on a raft until rescued by a Navy destroyer. When he was shot down another time, his rescuers had to pay a ransom, his son said.

"He was picked up by a battleship, and was traded for two drums of ice cream," said Jon Grossman of Bethesda. After getting the first payment, Grossman said, "they held him out there over churning waters until they got another drum."

The toll of combat, for which he was awarded two Distinguished Flying Crosses, focused Dr. Grossman's mission in life, his son said. "After World War II, he wanted to save lives. He had seen people shot down, and it really affected him," Grossman said.

The first thing he did was finish high school, and then he studied engineering at City College of New York. He subsequently graduated from Hofstra University with a bachelor's degree in biology and chemistry. He received a doctorate in biochemistry from the University of Southern California in 1954.

He then began working in the laboratory at the McCollum-Pratt Institute on Johns Hopkins University's Homewood campus. In 1957, after a brief stint at the National Institutes of Health, he joined the new Department of Biochemistry at Brandeis University. There, his pioneering studies on the biochemistry of DNA repair ensured his rise to the rank of professor.

In 1975, he returned to Johns Hopkins to become the E.V. McCollum professor and chairman of the Department of Biochemistry in what was then the School of Hygiene and Public Health. He also held joint appointments in the Bloomberg School's Department of Environmental Health Sciences and the School of Medicine's Oncology Department.

In spring 2004, the department of biochemistry and molecular biology established the Lawrence Grossman Lectureship to honor his research achievements and his 14 years as department chairman.

Dr. Grossman was on the editorial boards of several journals and book series, and contributed numerous articles to scientific journals. He represented the International Union of Biochemistry to the National Academy of Sciences.

A former resident of Bethesda and Rockville, Dr. Grossman had lived in Baltimore since 1975. He was active in the civil rights and antiwar movements, concerning both Vietnam and Iraq. He enjoyed being a sailor and a pilot.

Besides his son, survivors include his wife of 57 years, Barbara Grossman of Baltimore; two other children, Carl H. Grossman of Swarthmore, Pa., and Ilene R. Grossman of LaSerena, Chile; a sister; and six grandchildren.


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