Morton Arnsdorf, emeritus professor at the University of Chicago, was a creative scientist, a leader in clinical cardiology, and a mentor and role model for a generation of trainees in cardiology and cardiovascular research. He died on June 9, 2010 in an automobile accident. He was born in Chicago in 1940 and attended Harvard College, where he majored in History of Science. After medical school at Columbia College of Physicians & Surgeons, he completed his internal medicine residency at the University of Chicago. There, Rory Childers introduced him to cardiac electrophysiology, when they sought to learn why hyperthyroidism often caused atrial fibrillation. From that time arrhythmias and electrophysiology became his lifelong passion. His fellowship in cardiology was back in New York at the Columbia College of Physicians & Surgeons, where he began a series of experimental studies on the mechanisms of arrhythmias and antiarrhythmic drugs with Tom Bigger. He joined the faculty at the University of Chicago in 1973, after military service in Alaska. From 1981 to 1990, he was chief of Cardiology at Chicago, and beginning in 2004 until he became emeritus in 2009, he served as Vice-Chairman of the Department of Internal Medicine for Appointments and Promotions.
Morton was very active in professional organizations. At various times, he served as president of the Chicago Heart Association, was a member of the national American Heart Association Board of Directors and the Steering Committee, and was Chairman of the Basic Science Council. He was American College of Cardiology Governor for Illinois, and he was elected Master of the American College of Cardiology. In 2005, he was given the American College of Cardiology Distinguished Fellow Award. He served a term as president of the Cardiac Electrophysiology Society and was a founding member of the Association of University Cardiologists. He served as a member of the NIH Pharmacology Study Section, as well as various NIH special review and emphasis panels, and he was a member of the national American Heart Association Research Committee. He was a fellow of the American College of Physicians, and he was active in the Central Society for Clinical Research.
As a scientist, Morton was a creative leader in the mechanisms of arrhythmias and the action of antiarrhythmic drugs. One of his early contributions was showing that a subset of supraventricular arrhythmias could be cured by excision of an ectopic pacemaker focus. Among his electrophysiological contributions was elucidation of the effects of abnormal serum potassium, which could masquerade as myocardial infarction, as well as predispose to arrhythmia. Being frustrated with the difficulty of determining the excitability factors causing lethal arrhythmias, he began to treat the multiple interactive passive and active cell membrane properties, cell and organ geometry, metabolism, second messenger status, and electrolyte states as mathematical matrices, resulting in behavior described by the mathematical theory of chaos. This theory implies that small, presently undetectable differences in initial conditions during cyclic cardiac electric events could lead to unpredictable outcomes, including the electric disorganization of fibrillation. A typical agent responsible for such differences in initial conditions is a drug that affects active or passive membrane properties.
He had a lifelong fascination with the information content of electrocardiograms, and he restored the validity of the solid angle theorem for their analysis. This led him to the study of the electric properties of gap junctions as key elements in conductivity and “healing over.” Morton was a pioneer in the biological applications of atomic force microscopy, using it to determine the three dimensional structure of gap junctions under relatively natural conditions. In the process of this work he made excellent contributions to the calibration and application of atomic force microscopy to molecular structure under physiological conditions. Some of his last basic scientific work with atomic force microscopy was on prion formation.
Morton was a member of the editorial board of Circulation Research and was Associate Editor from 1986 to 1991. He reviewed for all the major internal medicine and cardiovascular disease journals and for basic pharmacology and biophysics journals. One of his major interests was computer-based teaching. Among his many contributions in that area was coeditorship of the cardiovascular diseases section of UpToDate, an online textbook of medicine.
Morton was also an active clinician, inevitably leading him to involvement in biomedical ethics. He was a member of the Interdisciplinary Panel on Medical, Legal and Ethical Issues Surrounding Decisions on Life Support Treatments of the Illinois Bar Association. He also was drawn into clinical studies. In the last decade, this interest focused on heart disease in women. Initially, this work considered the value of exercise capacity in women and problems in interpretation of treadmill testing in women. Soon, it expanded into gender-dependent outcomes of coronary bypass surgery and hospital bias in the management of ischemic heart disease in women.
A special quality was Mort's ability to inspire and support young people in science and medicine. He was a consummate gentleman, a superb teacher of both cardiac electrophysiology and clinical cardiology, and a special advocate for women in cardiology. In 2006, he received the Mentorship of Women in Cardiology award from the American Heart Association. He was greatly respected and loved by his students and colleagues, and we mourn our loss. The University and his family will have a memorial service at noon in the University of Chicago's Rockefeller Chapel on Wednesday, September 15, 2010. All of his friends and colleagues are invited. A memorial fund to support a lectureship and research training in Cardiology has been created in his honor.
University of Chicago
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