Schonfeld, lipid research pioneer, dies at 77

Gustav Schonfeld, MD, the Samuel E. Schechter Professor and former head of the Department of Medicine at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis, died May 21, 2011 at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York City.

Schonfeld, 77, was on vacation visiting his children when he suffered complications from myelofibrosis.

Schonfeld led the Division of Atherosclerosis, Nutrition and Lipid Research at Washington University School of Medicine from 1972-2002 and from 1996-99, he served as the Adolphus Busch Professor and head of the Department of Medicine, and physician-in-chief at Barnes-Jewish Hospital.

“Gus Schonfeld’s research established important connections between heart disease and lipid metabolism,” says Larry J. Shapiro, MD, executive vice chancellor of medical affairs and dean of the School of Medicine. “In groundbreaking work, he helped to demonstrate that lowering cholesterol decreases heart attacks. Gus was the quintessential physician-scientist, taking observations made with genetically engineered mice and translating them in ways most likely to improve the lives of patients with a host of disorders, including heart disease, hyperlipidemia and fatty liver. He was a person of consummate integrity and wisdom. He provided thoughtful advice and counsel. He was my friend, and I will miss him.”


Schonfeld spent more than a year of his childhood in Nazi concentration camps. When he was 10 years old, his family was taken from their home in Munkacs, Hungary, which is now Mukachevo, Ukraine, by cattle car to Auschwitz and separated. He and his parents never saw Schonfeld’s 7-month-old brother or grandmother again. With his father, Schonfeld spent time at Auschwitz, Warsaw, Dachau and Muhldorf. The two were separated from his mother for most of that time.

In 2009, Schonfeld published a memoir, Absence of Closure, that described his experiences in the concentration camps in detail. In it, Schonfeld credits his father for saving his life by putting him to work in the dispensary, where his father treated sick prisoners, and giving his food to his son. Schonfeld donated the proceeds from the book to the School of Medicine, the St. Louis Holocaust Museum and Learning Center, and two of the Hebrew day schools his grandchildren attended.

After the war, Schonfeld and his father spent a year recovering in Czechoslovakia, while relatives in St. Louis acquired the necessary immigration documents to bring them to St. Louis. During this time, they were reunited with his mother, who had survived Auschwitz. The three Schonfelds moved to St. Louis a year after the liberation.

He earned a bachelor’s degree in 1956 and a medical degree in 1960, both from Washington University. Schonfeld did post-graduate training at New York University, Bellevue Medical Center. He later studied lipid disorders at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and at the U.S. Air Force School of Aerospace Medicine, eventually attaining the rank of captain.

He joined the School of Medicine faculty in 1972, becoming a full professor in 1977. He was named the Kountz Professor in 1987 and then became the Schechter Professor of Medicine in 2001. Internationally known for his research on heart disease prevention and cholesterol and for his expertise on lipid metabolism, he studied apolipoprotein B (apoB), the major protein of low-density lipoprotein, commonly known as “bad” cholesterol.

“Dr. Schonfeld was a distinguished investigator and an outstanding clinician and teacher,” says Victoria Fraser, MD, the J. William Campbell Professor of Medicine, interim head of medicine and co-director of the infectious diseases division. “I will always remember him for his kind and gracious personality. He was extremely compassionate and cared deeply for his patients, faculty, trainees and staff. His concern for others was evident in everything he did and said.”

A member of numerous professional societies, including the Association of American Physicians and the American Society for Clinical Investigation, Schonfeld also held editorial positions with the journals Circulation, Journal of Clinical Investigation, and Atherosclerosis and was on the editorial board of the Journal of Lipid Research.

In 1995, he received an Alumni/Faculty Award from the Washington University Medical Center Alumni Association and in 2006 a Special Award of the American Heart Association. He also chaired the Washington University Senate Council. He sat on the board of the Hillel Foundation and served as president of St. Louisans for Better Government. He was a great advocate of Jewish studies and a long-standing and active member of Bais Abraham Congregation in St. Louis.

He is survived by his wife, Miriam Schonfeld, who says family always was emphasized in their lives because of his past. “Considering what they all went through, the fact that the family continued and grew was always very important to him,” she says.

The Schonfelds have three children: Joshua (Suzanne) Schonfeld of Potomac, Md.; Julia (Michael) Zeuner of New York, N.Y. and Jeremy (Sarah-Jane Casey) Schonfeld of New York, N.Y. They also have seven grandchildren.

A funeral service was held on Tuesday, May 24 at Berger Memorial Chapel, 4715 McPherson Ave., St. Louis, Mo. A memorial service at the School of Medicine is being planned for a later date.

Memorial contributions may be made to Washington University School of Medicine, the Holocaust Museum and Learning Center in St. Louis and to Batya-Friends of United Hatzalah (an emergency medical organization in Israel).