David A. Brenner

Born: April 28, 1953 | Queens, NY, US

David A. Brenner grew up in Queens, New York, and evinced an early interest in the sciences. As an undergraduate at Yale University he worked in Joseph Bloomer's lab, where he continued his research after earning his bachelor's degree in biology and entering Yale Medical School. His subsequent work has focused on ferrochelatase and fibrosis in cirrhosis. In his 1990 interview, Brenner discusses tenure; his lab management style; competition and collaboration; and his winning of the Pew Scholars Program in the Biomedical Sciences award. Brenner starts the 2009 interview by reviewing his early years in college and affirming his career decisions. He appreciates the insights his clinical experience gives him in his research, and he talks about the Pew award and the Pew annual meetings. 

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Interview Details

Interview no.: Oral History 0652
No. of pages: 102
Minutes: 315

Interview Sessions

Richard Sawyer, Arnold Thackray and Hilary Domush
20 June 1990, 10 and 11 March 2009
University of California, San Diego San Diego, California

Abstract of Interview

David A. Brenner grew up in Queens, New York, the oldest of three children.  His father worked in the family business, a ladies’ clothing store; his mother was a housewife until her children were grown, at which time she went into real estate.  Brenner was bar mitzvah, but he had no attraction to religion.  He was always interested in the sciences. 

For Brenner the sciences meant medicine, and he chose Yale University as a good school for biology.  He found chemistry static and dull, but biology was burgeoning.  After his junior year, Brenner spent a year on a research ship, working for Edward Thorndike of the Lamont Geological Observatory, and becoming interested in marine biology.  Back at Yale he reverted to biology, working in Joseph Bloomer’s lab and winning an award for his outstanding thesis.

Only two medical schools required a thesis of students, and wanting to continue to do research, Brenner chose Yale.  He continued working in Bloomer’s lab, studying protoporphyria in the Liver Study Unit.  He took his two years of classes and then went back to the lab.  He worked on variegate porphyria, writing a thesis that was published in New England Journal of Medicine.  Brenner and his wife, who had also been a medical student at Yale, then went to the National Institutes of Health (NIH) for three years.  He wanted to learn molecular biology, so he spent three years in Daniel Camerini-Otero’s lab, while his wife did rheumatology.

Brenner next took a job at the University of California, San Diego (UCSD).  He worked for a year in clinical gastroenterology on liver diseases.  He set up his lab and began his study of ferrochelatase.  Mario Chojkier persuaded Brenner to join his molecular biology knowledge with Chojkier’s biochemical knowledge in a study of collagen.  Brenner also joined the staff of the Veterans Administration Medical Center. 

At the end of the 1990 interview, Brenner explains his title and its connection to tenure; his lab management style; competition and collaboration; and his winning of the Pew Scholars Program in the Biomedical Sciences award.

He starts the 2009 interview by reviewing his early years in college and affirming his career decisions.  He expresses joy in the richness of biology; he appreciates the insights his clinical experience gives him in his research.  He also reminisces about his long lab hours and his residency.  He remembers life in the NIH labs and discusses moonlighting to keep up his clinical skills while he did his postdoc.  And he talks about the Pew Scholars Program in the Biomedical Sciences award and the Pew annual meetings. 

After several years Brenner moved to the University of North Carolina (UNC), becoming a full professor and continuing his work on ferrochelatase and fibrosis in cirrhosis.  He was named director of the university’s Center for Digestive Diseases and Nutrition and became Editor-in-Chief of Gastroenterology.  He commanded more lab space and more equipment.  He found UNC’s intellectual approach similar to those of UCSD and Yale.  North Carolina, furthermore, had a welcoming lab community and was a good place to establish his family life (and, as Brenner notes, there was also Atlantic Coast Conference basketball, and the sky was always Carolina blue).  His children had time to grow up in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, before Brenner moved to Columbia University, where he became Samuel Bard Professor and Chairman of the Department of Medicine.  After his five years as Editor of Gastroenterology Brenner was lured back to San Diego; there he became Vice Chairman for Health Services and Dean. 

At the end of the interview he talks about various universities; his administrative duties; and his lack of time for the lab.  He explains his hope to affiliate the children’s hospital to the UCSD system, tells some visa stories about his foreign postdocs, and talks more about grant writing and his grants.  He laughs when asked how he has balanced his home life and work life, saying he never did balance them and mentions that his children are now grown, his daughter in medical school at Columbia, and his son, a graduate of University of Georgia, in business.  They all get together, however, at the Atlantic Coast Conference basketball championships, of course rooting for the Tar Heels.

Education

Year Institution Degree Discipline
1975 Yale University BS Biology
1979 Yale University School of Medicine MD

Professional Experience

Yale-New Haven Hospital

1972 to 1982
Resident, Department of Internal Medicine

National Institute of Arthritis, Diabetes, and Digestive and Kidney Disease

1982 to 1985
Medical Staff Fellow Research Associate, Genetics and Biochemistry Branch

University of California, San Diego

1985 to 1986
Gastroenterology Fellow
1986 to 1990
Assistant Professor of Medicine in Residence
1990 to 1992
Associate Professor of Medicine
2007 to 2010
Vice Chancellor for Health Sciences and Dean, University of California, San Diego, School of Medicine

Veterans Administration Medical Center, San Diego

1987 to 1992
Staff Physician
1988 to 1989
Acting Assistant Chief of Medicine
1992
Clinical Investigator

University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill

1993 to 2000
Professor, Medicine and Biochemistry and Biophysics
1993 to 2000
Chief, Division of Digestive Diseases and Nutrition
2000 to 2003
Nina C. and John T. Sessions Distinguished Professor of Digestive Diseases and Nutrition
2001 to 2006
Editor-in-Chief, Gastroenterology
2002 to 2003
Director, University of North Carolina Center for Digestive Diseases and Nutrition
1994 to 2000
Co-Director, Center for Gastrointestinal Biology and Disease

Columbia University

2003 to 2007
Samuel Bard Professor and Chairman, Department of Medicine
2003 to 2008
Member, Herbert Irving Comprehensive Cancer Center, Experimental Therapeutics, Gastrointestinal Cancer
2003 to 2007
Member, Columbia University Institute of Nutrition

Honors

Year(s) Award
1979

Harry S. N. Greene Prize for Outstanding Thesis

1986 to 1989

American Gastroenterological Association Sandoz Research Award

1986 to 1990

Pew Scholar in the Biomedical Sciences

1989

Chief Medical Resident's Teaching Award

1998 to 1999

Kenan Fellow

Table of Contents

Early Years
1

Family background. Religion. Early interest in sciences. Childhood in Queens,New York. Public schools. Siblings and their careers.

College Years
3

Deciding on Yale University. Chooses biology because it was burgeoning,chemistry static. Interested at first in marine biology. Spends year on researchship, working for Edward Thorndike of Lamont Geological Observatory atColumbia University. Worked in Joseph Bloomer's lab while in college. Winsoutstanding thesis award.

Medical School Years
8

Chooses Yale University Medical School, one of only two schools to requirethesis. Wants to do research, but also values clinical perspective. As summer jobbefore medical school, works in Bloomer's lab in Liver Study Unit, working onprotoporphyria. Two years of classes, then back to lab work as much as possible. Continues work on variegate porphyria, gets published in New England Journalof Medicine. Meets wife, also in medical school at Yale.

National Institutes of Health (NIH) Years
15

Postdoc at NIH to learn molecular biology. Spends three years in R. DanielCamerini-Otero's lab. No staff; has to do all work himself. Wife at NIH to studyrheumatology.

University of California, San Diego (UCSD) Years
29

Ready for his own lab, takes job at UCSD. Has number of grants to pay his ownway. Does a clinical year in gastroenterology, where liver study is. Begins studyof ferrochelatase. Sets up lab. Begins working on collagen with Mario Chojkier. Studies scarring caused by cirrhosis. Joins faculty of Veterans AdministrationSan Diego Medical Center. Tenure. Lab management. Competition andcollaboration. Pew Scholars Program in the Biomedical Sciences award.

Reexamining Early Career
35

Reviews early years in college. Affirms correctness of college and medicalschool decisions. Expresses joy in richness of biology versus other disciplines. Thesis; eighty-hour work weeks; residency.

Reexamining NIH and UCSD Years
54

Life in the NIH lab. Moonlighting. Fellowship from UCSD. Lab setup. Importance of Pew grant. Pew meetings. Intellectuality of Yale and UCSD. Twenty years since last hands-on experiment. Lab composition and management. Turning down grants.

University of North Carolina Years
66

More lab space, more equipment. Intellectual approach similar to UCSD andYale. Community. Director of Center for Digestive Diseases and Nutrition. Atlantic Coast Conference basketball. Editor-in-Chief of the journal Gastroenterology. Work on ferrochelatase; fibrosis in cirrhosis. Competition;publishing.

Columbia Years
72

Chairman of Department of Medicine. More administrative duties. No morestudents in lab. Compares structures of programs at Columbia and University ofNorth Carolina.

Back to UCSD
81

Vice Chairman for Health Services and Dean. Discusses different strengths of allhis universities. Describes his administrative work. Attempting to affiliatechildren's hospital to UCSD system. No American postdocs in lab; stories ofvisa difficulties. More about grants. State school alumni and their loyalty. Informing the lay public. Balancing private and work lives. Children nowgrown.

Index
99

Vice Chairman for Health Services and Dean. Discusses different strengths of allhis universities. Describes his administrative work. Attempting to affiliatechildren's hospital to UCSD system. No American postdocs in lab; stories ofvisa difficulties. More about grants. State school alumni and their loyalty. Informing the lay public. Balancing private and work lives. Children nowgrown.

About the Interviewer

Hilary Domush

Hilary Domush was a Program Associate in the Center for Oral History at CHF from 2007–2015. Previously, she earned a BS in chemistry from Bates College in Lewiston, Maine in 2003.  She then completed an MS in chemistry and an MA in history of science both from the University of Wisconsin-Madison.  Her graduate work in the history of science focused on early nineteenth-century chemistry in the city of Edinburgh, while her work in the chemistry was in a total synthesis laboratory.  At CHF, she worked on projects such as the Pew Biomedical Scholars, Women in Chemistry, Atmospheric Science, and Catalysis.

Arnold Thackray

Arnold Thackray founded the Chemical Heritage Foundation and served the organization as president for 25 years. He is currently CHF’s chancellor. Thackray received MA and PhD degrees in history of science from Cambridge University. He has held appointments at Cambridge, Oxford University, and Harvard University, the Institute for Advanced Study, the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences, and the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

In 1983 Thackray received the Dexter Award from the American Chemical Society for outstanding contributions to the history of chemistry. He served for more than a quarter century on the faculty of the University of Pennsylvania, where he was the founding chairman of the Department of History and Sociology of Science and is currently the Joseph Priestley Professor Emeritus.

Richard Sawyer