Gary Toback, MD, PhD, professor of medicine and former interim section chief of nephrology, died early Wednesday morning, July 20, when he was struck by a vehicle while jogging near his home in the nearby South Shore neighborhood, something he did almost every day. The incident is being investigated.
Toback, a highly respected authority on kidney disease, especially the use of renal growth factors to treat acute kidney injury and hasten repair, was a loyal, productive and popular member of the faculty for 42 years. He was devoted to the care of patients with kidney disease and the education of medical students.
He was also a highly respected clinical scientist. His earliest studies focused on potassium and the kidney, and on the development of kidney stones. Later in his career he concentrated on proteins associated with regeneration of kidney tissues. More recently, in collaboration with colleagues in gastroenterology, he searched for proteins that could prevent damage or speed recovery for gastric epithelial tissues, with a particular emphasis on inflammatory bowel disease.
“I feel a great sense of personal loss at this tragic event,” said Kenneth Polonsky, MD, dean of the Biological Sciences Division and the Pritzker School of Medicine and executive vice president for medical affairs at the University of Chicago. “Gary was a true role model for physician scientists, deeply committed to scholarship, education and the care of patients with renal disease. He always conducted himself with the highest level of dignity and professionalism.”
A scientist and a clinician
Toback’s efforts to identify, purify and characterize various growth factors involved in wound healing, and later with kidney stone disease, led to multiple patents and the formation in 1995 of a biotechnology company, NephRx Corporation, based in Kalamazoo, Mich.
“He trained as a scientist and a clinician,” said Fredric Coe, MD, professor of medicine and medical director of the University’s Kidney Stone Prevention Program, “and focused on cell biology, in this case how individual cells respond to an injury. In the process, he discovered a molecule, antrum mucosal protein-18, which is of considerable importance for cell repair.”
He was also “passionate about both scientific enquiry and the rights and protection of patients participating in clinical research,” said Arlene Chapman, MD, section chief of nephrology and director of the Clinical Research Center for the University of Chicago’s Institute for Translational Medicine. As the research subject advocate for the ITM, Toback “tirelessly ensured participants’ best interests were taken into account when enrolled in clinical trials,” she said.
“Gary Toback was a quadruple threat,” said Jonathan Moss, MD, PhD, professor of anesthesiology. “He was a superb clinician, an outstanding researcher, a gifted teacher and a successful administrator.”
Colleagues also remember Toback as a remarkably friendly, kind, level-headed and well-liked professor, readily available to faculty and students, and consistently able to provide solid, sensible advice.
“Gary was a mensch,” said geneticist Graeme Bell, PhD, the Kovler Family Distinguished Service Professor of Medicine at the University. Everyone liked him. Talking with him was valuable because he was widely respected in his field, always saw the big picture, and could fill in the details, as needed, with pure common sense.”
“He was a superb listener,” said Marshall Lindheiemer, MD, professor emeritus of medicine and obstetrics and gynecology at the University of Chicago, who helped recruit Toback to the University from his fellowship in the Harvard hospital system. “He was open and engaging. He had a talent for paying attention. He could focus intently on whoever was speaking as if they were saying something profound—even if it was mostly malarkey.”
“Gary was a quiet soul,” Coe added, “a lovely, warm, gracious, considerate man. He was always a good person to have in the room.”
A 42-year career at UChicago
Frederick Gary Toback was born October 23, 1941, in the Brooklyn borough of New York, NY. He graduated cum laude in biochemistry from Columbia University in 1963. He completed his medical training at the New York University School of Medicine in 1967, followed by residency at the Cleveland Metropolitan General Hospital, part of the Case Western Reserve system. After serving for a year in the United States Navy Medical Corps, he returned to school to earn his PhD in biochemistry at Boston University, followed by a clinical nephrology fellowship at the Beth Israel Hospital in Boston.
He came to the University of Chicago in 1974 as an assistant professor of medicine and—except for one sabbatical year at the Salk Institute in San Diego, where he studied the importance of sodium ions in epithelial cell growth—stayed for the rest of his career. He was promoted to associate professor in 1980 and professor in 1985. He served as interim section chief for nephrology from late 2008 to 2015. He published 100 research papers during his 42 years at the University of Chicago and lectured at distinguished universities throughout the United States and Europe.
Toback took on dozens of administrative and committee roles, within the University and on the national level. He participated in four internal search committees for department chairmen and three department reviews and was a member or chair of multiple grant review committees at the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases.
Toback was honored nationally by election to the Association of American Physicians and the American Society for Clinical Investigation. He was a fellow of the American Heart Association’s Council on the Kidney in Cardiovascular Disease. He was an active member of the National Kidney Foundation and the American Society of Nephrology.
The University’s Biological Sciences Division honored him last year with a symposium in his name about the biology of kidney disease and its treatment.
He was also devoted to his family. He married his childhood friend, Phyllis Brooks, PhD, D Min, in 1963. They raised three children: David Andrew Toback, PhD, born in 1969 and now a professor of physics and astronomy at Texas A&M; Alison Rachel, born in 1972, a psychotherapist; and Jonathan Daniel, born in 1975, a mechanical engineer at Baxter. There are seven grandchildren.
Burial was in a family plot in New York. A memorial service at the University of Chicago will be held at a later date. In lieu of flowers, donations should be sent to the Gary Toback Research Fund in care of the Medical Center Development Office, 773.702.6565, GivetoMedicine@bsd.uchicago.edu.