Biography of Donald W Fawcett

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Donald W. Fawcett, MD

Donald Wayne Fawcett received his M.D from Harvard Medical School (HMS) in 1942. During his medical training, he engaged in research in the Department of Anatomy at HMS. After WWII, he returned to the Anatomy department and began  working on adipose tissue and the male reproductive system. He would later chair the Department of Anatomy at Cornell  Medical School from 1955-1959, and chaired HMS’s Department of Anatomy (the precursor to the Department of Cell Biology)  from 1960 until  his retirement in 1982.

 During the 1950’s, Dr. Fawcett recognized the enormous potential of the newly developed electron microscope and journeyed  to what is now Rockefeller University to work with Drs. Keith Porter and George Palade. Fawcett was the first to describe the  9+2 pattern of microtubules in cilia, and he would eventually publish over 200 papers on the ultrastructure of cells and organs,  and author The Cell, an atlas of subcellular fine structures. Fawcett, Porter, and Palade were widely recognized as the  foremost leaders in the use of electron microscopy to study cells, and they are now considered the founders of modern cell  biology. In 1961, Fawcett was elected the first president of the American Society for Cell Biology (ASCB), which whose  founders included both Fawcett and Porter.

 During his career, Dr. Fawcett made many important observations of cells and subcellular structures, including mitochondria,  skeletal and cardiac muscle, brown fat, hepatocytes, and spermatozoa. He was also the first to recognize smooth endoplasmic  reticulum as a distinct entity, and he demonstrated its role in drug and steroid metabolism. He defined the sarcoplasmic  reticulum and discovered nuclear lamina. Later, his career focused on male reproduction, sparking advances in reproductive  biology. In addition to receiving numerous awards and accolades for his research, Fawcett distinguished himself in another  important respect: he appointed the first female professor and the second African-American professor in a preclinical  department at HMS. As an Associate Dean, he would appoint the first woman to occupy a departmental chair in a preclinical  department.

In honor of Dr. Don Fawcett (1917-2009), the Fawcett Lectures were established in 1988 to bring outstanding scholars in Cell Biology to Harvard Medical School.

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