‘No Man Is an Island’: Remembering the Late George Vande Woude

By Samuel Lopez, staff writer; image from the SPGM archives
Photo of Dr. George Vande Woude

Dr. George Vande Woude

Any man’s death diminishes me,

Because I am involved in mankind.

And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls;

It tolls for thee.

            - John Donne

George Vande Woude, Ph.D., former director of the Advanced Bioscience Laboratories–Basic Research Program at what is now NCI at Frederick, passed away in April.

He was known for being a prudent leader and an outstanding scientist (he and his laboratory discovered the MET oncogene in 1984), as well as for his vibrant personality and seemingly limitless energy.

He was a devoted father and husband, a farmer, a pyromaniac, a gifted mechanic, and a wonderful friend—with a habit of driving entirely too fast, says Steve Hughes, Ph.D., chief of the Retroviral Replication Laboratory and Vande Woude’s close friend and former deputy director.

Vande Woude’s 1983–1999 tenure in Frederick left a mark with colleagues and programs alike.

“He is a man for whom John Donne wrote that poem [‘No Man Is an Island’],” Hughes said. His passing dampens the many lives he touched throughout his career.

A Capable and Compassionate Leader

Alexander Wlodawer, Ph.D., senior investigator in the Center for Structural Biology, fondly remembers the enthusiastic and visionary director who hired him in 1987, saying that Vande Woude is one of the major reasons he joined Frederick.

“The NCI structural biology community owes a great debt to the late Dr. George Vande Woude. As strange as it may sound now, in the mid-1980s there was no structural biology laboratory within the NCI, whereas several other institutes of the NIH had very powerful programs in that important research area,” Wlodawer said. “George saw the need and … decided to create a facility dedicated to X-ray crystallography, at that time the most successful technology of structural biology.”

The result was the Macromolecular Crystallography Laboratory, headed by Wlodawer. The program quickly blossomed into an outstanding group with cutting-edge instruments and what Wlodawer calls “access to almost unlimited computational facilities.”

In 1989, the vision paid off. Wlodawer’s laboratory was the first in the world to publish the 3D structure of the HIV protease protein complexed with an inhibitor, giving drug developers accurate molecular data for designing much-needed medicines to suppress HIV in humans.

Insight, kindness, and a desire to support others were also hallmarks of Vande Woude’s life. He is widely known for his generosity and responsibility in mentoring, setting up programs, and equipping others to succeed—and for his integrity in dealing with the repercussions when performance flagged or problems arose.

“His immediate instinct was ‘How can I help you?’ which was marvelously refreshing,” Hughes said.

Andy Byrd, Ph.D., senior investigator in the Center for Structural Biology, recalls many such supportive conversations and meetings with Vande Woude.

“When you went to see him about some issue—whether financial, personnel, or scientific—there was a good discussion and plan for resolution of the issue, and then George insisted on you telling him about the latest experiments and directions in your group. He would listen, offer comments, and then share the latest from his group,” Byrd said. “So, while he was a caring and consummate director, he was first and always a scientist who cared about the people in the program.”

The facility and larger scientific community benefited from Vande Woude’s care and enthusiasm too. He boosted NCI at Frederick’s role as a mentoring institution by expanding the number of positions for postdoctoral fellows, a model that continues today. It has given thousands of young scientists a more important role in research and a chance to train and start their careers under the tutelage of esteemed scientists.

He also developed the modern site visit and program review process in Frederick. The larger NCI later adopted the approach. Experts in the respective field of each laboratory would visit on a regular basis to assess the programs in Frederick and recommend whether they should continue. Hughes says it fostered good, meaningful science and guaranteed that investigators led successful programs.

“There were no faculty members who were immune from scrutiny,” he recalled. “There was an expectation that people would perform at a high level. They would be given all the help and support and everything that they needed, but they were expected to perform at a high level.”

‘Wonderfully Colorful’

Vande Woude’s enthusiasm for science sprang from his enthusiasm for everything he did. He is widely remembered as a diligent worker and a warm personality who also made time to relish life.

“He encouraged young people to work hard and enjoy science and life,” Byrd said.

Hughes agreed: “It was a wonderful intersection of serious work separated by things that were fun. Even the work was fun.”

Outside of his scientific career, Vande Woude and his wife, Dot, owned a farm in Virginia and raised purebred Simmental cattle. He took great pleasure in working around the farm, and he would often find ways to make it more amusing for himself.

For instance, Hughes recalls several occasions where his friend, whose pyromania was “complete” and “dedicated,” would collect rotten wood and brush from around the property, gather it into a pile 15 feet across and 15 feet tall, throw buckets of gasoline on it, and set it alight. Sometimes the flames would reach 50 feet in the air.

Another time, Vande Woude creatively disposed of a malfunctioning chainsaw that he had already fixed several times. He perched it atop a fence post and shot it twice with a rifle. In his characteristic wit, he later remarked that it “wasn’t very sporting because it wasn’t running at the time.”

“He was wonderfully colorful,” Hughes said.

Barriers Don’t Apply

Unsurprisingly, Vande Woude also wasn’t one to be constrained.

He refused to let limited time prevent him from doing what he enjoyed. One of his early career positions was at Plum Island, New York, which could be reached only by boat. He was an avid fisherman and would fish on his nautical commute to and from work.

Other potential hurdles, such as age, were equally as irrelevant. In 1999, at the age of 64, he departed NCI, moved to Michigan, bought a small farm (keeping the farm in Virginia too), and became the founding research director at the Van Andel Research Institute, a scientific facility in Grand Rapids with funding from Jay and Betty Van Andel. But the city was home to no significant scientific enterprises at the time, and the institute itself was under construction. It was a fresh start from the ground up.

“[He] made it from nothing at an age when most people would retire,” Hughes said.

Vande Woude’s refusal to recognize constraints, coupled with his energy, compassion, intelligence, and love of life, made him both a successful director and a successful scientist over his nearly 70-year career. He leaves a legacy of fond memories, well-equipped and well-performing colleagues, generations of inspired scientists, and—with his passing—a distinct void in the community.

“It is my loss, but it’s your loss too,” Hughes said.

Do you have memories about Dr. Vande Woude or the old ABL–Basic Research Program? Send them to Poster@mail.nih.gov.


Samuel Lopez is a technical editor in Scientific Publications, Graphics & Media (SPGM), where he writes for NCI at Frederick and Frederick National Laboratory’s news outlets; manages the day-to-day operations of the Poster newsletter; informally serves as an institutional historian; and edits scientific manuscripts, corporate documentation, and a slew of other written media. SPGM is the facilities’ creative services department and hub for editing, illustration, graphic design, formatting, and multimedia training and support.