In Memoriam: William E. Lassiter, MD

William E. Lassiter, MD, distinguished kidney physiologist, researcher and clinician at the University of North Carolina School of Medicine from 1958 to 1993, died in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, on May 11, 2013.

In Memoriam: William E. Lassiter, MD click to enlarge William E. Lassiter, MD, 7/21/1927-05/11/2013

William (Bill) Lassiter was born in Wilmington, North Carolina, on July 27, 1927. He completed his undergraduate education, magna cum laude, at Harvard College, and his medical education at the Harvard School of Medicine. His clinical training was at the Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston and at the North Carolina Memorial Hospital in Chapel Hill. He also worked for a year with the legendary endocrinologist, Dr. Fuller Albright, at the Massachusetts General Hospital.

Bill joined the Department of Medicine at UNC in 1958, just four years after the medical school had become a full four-year school. 

He was a fellow with Dr. Carl Gottschalk from 1958 to 1960. Carl Gottschalk and his research associate, Margaret Mylle, had just reintroduced and updated the technique of micropuncture, which consisted of exposing urine-forming single nephrons in vivo under a stereomicroscope for the collection of nanoliter volumes of tubular fluid and the measurement of solute concentrations and nephron pressures and flows in rats, mice and desert rodents. When Bill Lassiter came to Chapel Hill, Gottschalk and Mylle had just completed a historic set of experiments that elucidated the mechanism whereby urine is concentrated in mammals, demonstrating how water is transported out of the tubular lumen in an energy-efficient manner in states of water deprivation.

Between 1958 and 1963 Gottschalk, Lassiter and Mylle performed and published a series of seminal experiments in rats and desert rodents that further characterized the transport of solutes under different conditions of urine flow. They were able to directly measure pH in proximal and distal tubules and demonstrated the predominate reabsorption of bicarbonate in the proximal tubule. In 1960, Lassiter directed a historic set of experiments demonstrating the role of urea in the production of  concentrated urine and demonstrated how the kidney does this in a remarkably efficient manner by recirculating urea between the loop of Henle and the medullary collecting ducts.

In 1960, Bill Lassiter became a faculty member in the Division of Metabolism of the Department of Medicine at UNC, and he would later join the Division of Nephrology when it was established in 1967. In 1962 Lassiter became an established investigator of the American Heart Association and later was named one of 13 Markle Scholars at the UNC School of Medicine.

By the early to mid 1960s, Carl Gottschalk and Bill Lassiter were recognized worldwide as outstanding kidney physiologists and leaders in the field. The Chapel Hill Micropuncture Laboratory became a model for a new approach to the study of kidney physiology. Indeed, the experiments of Gottschalk, Lassiter and Mylle became a game changer for the study of kidney physiology. No longer would the major emphasis be on metabolic studies in humans and animals; rather there was a strong move in the direction of the study of individual nephron function, which would eventually lead us to where we are today: the study of kidney function at the cellular and molecular level.

Gottschalk and Lassiter became co-principal investigators of a famous NIH grant, one of very few NIH grants to be funded for more than 30 years.

Bill Lassiter was an essential component of the Micropuncture Laboratory. He made great contributions to many of the studies, and he introduced new microanalytic methods, radioisotopes, and other technical innovations to the study of individual nephron function. For more than 30 years Bill Lassiter was a mentor and role model for the numerous scientists and physician scientists, many of them from abroad, who worked in the Kidney Micropuncture Laboratory.

Bill Lassiter was admired by his colleagues for his quick and clear mind, his facility with analytical methods, his deep knowledge of science and kidney physiology, and his precise use of the English language, so evident in his many publications. As Dr. Ronald J. Falk, Chief of the Division of Nephrology and Hypertension and Director of the UNC Kidney Center, has said, “Bill Lassiter was one of the smartest physiologists that ever walked these halls." 

As a clinician, Bill Lassiter was a pleasure to work with. He was a skilled and knowledgeable nephrologist and a kind, gentle, and compassionate physician beloved by his patients, some of whom continued to communicate with him years after his retirement.

Those of us who were touched by him will remember Bill Lassiter as our teacher, mentor, kind colleague, and dear friend.

The UNC School of Medicine will remember Bill Lassiter as one of the pioneers of the new four-year school and as a clinician-scientist who laid the foundations for what we are today: a great medical school, a great Department of Medicine, and a great Division of Nephrology and Hypertension. We, in the Division of Nephrology and Hypertension, celebrate Bill Lassiter for a life so well lived as a family man, a citizen, a teacher, a physician scientist, and as our esteemed colleague.

We send our condolences to Bill’s beautiful family and thank them for sharing Bill with us for so many years. What an honor to have had such a great man as a father, grandfather and brother!

--Written by Romulo Colindres, MD

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