Dowhan retires after half-century of service

By Rodney Kellems, PhD, Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology

Dr. William Dowhan
William Dowhan, PhD

In his 50th year of service to McGovern Medical School and the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center UTHealth Houston Graduate School of Biomedical Sciences, William Dowhan, PhD, professor and John S. Dunn Endowed Chair in Biochemistry and Molecular Biology announced his retirement effective Jan. 31, 2022.

Dowhan joined the medical school faculty in August 1972 as assistant professor of biochemistry and molecular biology.

Dowhan received his bachelor of arts in chemistry from Princeton University in 1964 where his senior research thesis was conducted under the guidance of the renowned physical chemist Walter Kauzmann. As a graduate student at the University of California at Berkeley, Dowhan’s dissertation research was conducted under the direction of Esmond Snell, a biochemist internationally known for his work with vitamin-B6-dependent enzymes.

After receiving his PhD in 1969, Dowhan was awarded an American Cancer Society postdoctoral fellowship to work at Harvard Medical School in the laboratory of Eugene Kennedy, internationally known for his advancement of our understanding of lipid metabolism and membrane function.

It is noteworthy that all three of Dowhan’s early mentors were among the most prominent biochemists of their time and each was a member of the National Academy of Sciences. It was in the Kennedy lab at Harvard that Dowhan began his lifelong interest in the structure, assembly, and function of cell membranes and the role of lipids as determinants of membrane protein structure and function.

Inspired by opportunities afforded by a new university, new medical school, and the leadership qualities of department chair Dr. John DeMoss, Dowhan accepted a position as assistant professor of biochemistry and molecular biology at the Medical School in August of 1972. Dowhan is one of a select few who has been at UTHealth Houston since its founding in 1972.

Dowhan was instrumental in developing and sustaining the medical school teaching program in biochemistry and molecular biology, beginning with the first on-campus class in 1972. He served as interim chair of the Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology from 1992-97 and as the initial director of the GSBS Graduate Program in Biochemistry and Molecular Biology from 1989-98. During this period, the program set the standards for the transition of the GSBS from general training in the biomedical sciences, to the development of discipline focused educational and research programs.

Dowhan also served as assistant dean for Student Affairs at the GSBS from 1978-81 and president of the GSBS faculty from 1989-90.

Dowhan developed a nationally and internationally recognized research program focused on understanding the role of phospholipids in cell function, membrane structure, and membrane protein assembly. Since his initial NIH grant awarded in 1973, he has been continuously funded by the NIH. One of his grants ran for 43 years, including a 10-year period as a Merit Award.

He has been funded by the Robert Welch Foundation and was the inaugural holder of the John S. Dunn Endowed Chair beginning in 1998. His research program has received recognition by the UT President’s Scholar Award for Excellence in Research in 2005, the Avanti Award for lipid research by the American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology in 2005, the Anatrace Award for membrane protein studies by the Biophysical Society in 2022, appointment as a fellow of the American Academy of Microbiology in 2000 and appointment as a fellow of the American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology in 2021.

Two of Dowhan’s manuscripts were noted as “classics” in the Journal of Biological Chemistry, and he served as executive editor of the Molecular and Cell Biology of Lipids section of Biochimie et Biophysica Acta, a member of the editorial board of The Journal of Biological Chemistry, and on numerous NIH study sections.

Dowhan trained 13 PhD candidates, 22 postdoctoral fellows, and his research group published 134 manuscripts and 49 reviews, which have been cited over 18,000 times. A reflective review of Dowhan’s scientific career can be accessed via DOI.

Although Dowhan formally retired, he was rehired by the medical school as a part-time faculty member (professor) in the Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology to continue directing his research program funded by continued support from the NIH for at least the next four years.

On behalf of UTHealth, please join us in congratulating Dr. Dowhan and in thanking him for his lifetime of leadership and dedication to our students, faculty, and staff through the advancement of scientific research and education. We are pleased and fortunate that he elected to remain with us on a part-time basis so we can continue to benefit from his experience and expertise. Thank you, Dr. Dowhan, for a lifetime of outstanding service to our school and the international scientific community.