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Gilbert Ashwell, NIH researcher, dies at 97

Gilbert Ashwell, a biochemist and medical researcher whose work in a National Institutes of Health laboratory helped lead to new methods of treating disease and infection, died June 27 at a Bethesda health-care facility. He was 97.

The cause was pneumonia, said his son, Jonathan Ashwell.

With Anatol G. Morell of the Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York, Dr. Ashwell discovered in the 1960s what became known as the Ashwell receptor, a protein that is prominent on the surface of liver cells. Research showed that this receptor plays an important role in reducing the dangers of sepsis and increases the chances of surviving infection.

“Researchers worldwide use the basis of Gil’s work with Morell to deliver drugs,” said Michael Gottesman, deputy director for intramural research at NIH, in a message to the staff announcing Dr. Ashwell’s death.

John Hanover, a colleague of Dr. Ashwell’s and chief of cell and molecular biology at the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases, called Dr. Ashwell “one of the pioneers in our field and in medicine.”

Gilbert Ashwell (Family Photo)

For his work in the discovery of receptors and other scientific research, Dr. Ashwell won the prestigious Canada Gairdner International Award in 1982. Two years later, he was named an NIH Institute Scholar, an award created especially for him. He is the only person ever to have received it. He was also elected to the National Academy of Sciences.

George Gilbert Ashwell, a Bethesda resident, was born July 16, 1916, in Jersey City. He graduated from the University of Illinois in 1938.

He was studying medicine and science in Switzerland after the outbreak of World War II. From wartime Basel, his family said, he helped Jewish refugees write letters to their American relatives in the hope of being sponsored and escaping Nazi persecution.

He returned to the United States to attend medical school, which gave him an exemption from military service. He received his medical degree from Columbia University in 1948.

In 1950, he joined the Institute of Arthritis, Metabolism and Digestive Diseases at the NIH. In 1967, He became chief of that unit’s Laboratory of Biochemistry and Metabolism, a job he held throughout most of his NIH career. He retired officially in 1997 but continued to work in his NIH laboratory until shortly before his death.

Away from the laboratory, he was an enthusiastic sailor and scholar. In his 90s, he decided to learn French. He spent a year at a language school at Aix-en-Provence and read only French-language books.

In 1942, he married Edna Fleischmann. For several years, she was a Bethesda pediatrician. She died in 2004. Survivors include two children, Ariel Ashwell of Washington and Jonathan Ashwell of Chevy Chase, Md.; and two grandchildren.

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