I have known only one man, just one man who, if you canvassed everyone he ever knew, not one would say a bad thing about him.

And that man was my uncle, Dr. Jerome Horwitz.

I’ve been thinking a lot about him, since his recent death at 93. He was such a gentle, brilliant soul, that I’d like to share a little bit about him.

What he’s most known for is creating the compound AZT, which became the first successful drug treatment for  AIDS. That happened in a serendipitous way. In the mid 1960s, while designing cancer treatments at Wayne State University, he developed a class of compounds he hoped would stanch the growth of cancer cells. It didn’t work. Disheartened, he stashed the formula for his discovery on a shelf. Many scientists at that time believed that a virus caused cancer and AZT was  designed by Jerome to attack and kill viruses in a stealthy way.

Two decades later, as HIV spread, our government was desperate for some kind of treatment. Ultimately, his creation was rediscovered and AZT became the very first drug that was an effective treatment for the AIDS virus. What was so astonishing was that Jerome had designed a unique approach for combating disease, even if it hadn’t worked to fight the one it was aimed at. While his peers were directly targeting malignancies, his idea was to trick cellular machinery. That approach led to a whole class of anti-viral drugs now used to treat herpes and hepatitis, in addition to HIV.

Not that he reaped one cent from his life-extending creation, even as drug companies prospered. Because he had deemed AZT a failure, he never bothered to patent it. But he was never in science for money anyway. As his wife, my Aunt Sharon half-jokingly says, he mostly had hoped to avoid his father’s business: selling chickens. But in truth my uncle worked for the good of science and of us all.

Jerome was my mom’s older brother and she absolutely adored him. I remember him visiting us when he was a University of Michigan doctoral student (he got his chemistry undergrad and master’s at the University of Detroit). He’d ride up on an old Indian motorcycle and my mom would literally run to greet and hug him.

Jerome was never consumed by work only. He had a perfect balance to his life: he had religion, his family and his science. He was a cantor in his synagogue, and he had a gorgeous voice. His tenor had an operatic quality. In addition, he was a quite an orator, not to mention a skilled writer. Really, there was nothing he didn’t do well.

He truly loved his family, his wife Sharon and his daughters Carol and Suzy. But I think his greatest joy was his five grandchildren. He was a mentor , a friend and a perfect grandfather to them all. What I really admired was that he was careful to organize his life such that his passions received equal attention. He found time for all the things that were important to him.

And of course that included his work. Jerome was born in Detroit and after his schooling he taught at Northwestern University then at Wayne State. He spent his career at the Michigan Cancer Foundation, which became Karmanos. As Head of Research, Jerome was a member of the founding group. Earlier in his career he’d worked in the field of rocket fuel science. One of his final projects was developing drugs for tracking tumors.

You know, whenever I picture him, he’s smiling. He was a very charming raconteur with an almost puckish sense of humor, and really had the biggest cheshire grin. There wasn’t a bit of pomposity about him. He was cute and fun to be with. He had this great belly laugh.

One of my sons is a physician and another one is in medical school. I’m sure Jerome influenced them. He’d had an impact on our entire family. That’s the kind of man he was. He had friends in every area, in science, synagogue. He was an unusual man who cut a very, very wide swath through life.

So, bravo, uncle Jerome. A stellar life, lived long and well. I’ll carry you with me forever.

“All great men are gifted with intuition. They know without reasoning or analysis, what they need to know. ” —  AlexisCarrel



  1. Spiritualism – The Molecular basis of Spirituality : Thanks for sharing this story about your uncle and his passion for Science. Your uncle describes the spiritual being; a person who is known from the nature of his existence seeking peace, harmony, and tranquility within himself and with others in his environment and community. His research on viruses interests me because I define spiritualism as the capacity or capability to organize molecules to establish the reality of biological existence by any life-form. The virus is nucleic acid molecule that has the potential but has no ability to perform its living functions without using the machinery provided by its host, a living cell. Viruses are the most abundant form of life on Earth and do not cause more than a minor inconvenience. The viral infection called AIDS undermines the natural ability to defend ourselves and hence we need to block the ability of this molecule to exploit the organic molecules that defend the existence of the host. In this context, the discovery made by your uncle is most noteworthy.

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