First African-American Medical School Chair Dies at 84

Harold Amos, who was Harvard Medical School’s first black department chair, died from complications of a stroke in Boston, Feb. 26. He was 84.

“Dr. Amos has been an inspiration, mentor and career counselor for young scientists and physicians-in-training for decades.” John J. Mekalanos, chair of the Department of Microbiology and Molecular Genetics at Harvard Medical School, said in an e-mail.

Amos was dedicated to helping minorities advance in the sciences, both urging them to enter the field and encouraging universities to recruit them.

H.C. Huang ’87 said he was a student and a family friend of Amos, who he describes as a humanist.

“For a scientist it is unusual to find someone who cared so much for other people.” Huang said. He also emphasized that although most people knew Amos for his work with minorities, Huang remembers the way he worked with people on a one to one basis. “He cared for individuals beyond any consideration of race, stage in life, or profession. He was also the most caring of the students than any professor I know.”

During Amos’ years at Harvard, he was one of only a few black faculty members.

Amos made a number of pioneering accomplishments in his field. He was known for his work in animal cell culture, bacterial metabolism and virology, specializing in cell metabolism. In 1958 he discovered that a compound, found in the carrier of genetic information—DNA—is also present in ribonucleic acid, or RNA.

One of nine children in his family, Amos was born in 1919 in Pennsauken, New Jersey to a postal worker and a homemaker.

In 1936, he graduated at the top of his class from Camden High School, then attended Springfield College in Massachusetts on a scholarship. He graduated in 1941 with a degree in chemistry.

After serving in the U.S. Army in World War II, Amos returned to school under the G.I. Bill, earning his doctorate from Harvard Medical School in 1952.

Amos then became an instructor in the Department of Bacteriology and Immunology in 1954, and served as chair of the department twice—from 1968 to 1971 then again between 1975 and 1978.

In 1971 President Richard M. Nixon appointed Amos to the National Cancer Advisory Board.

Amos directed the Minority Medical Faculty Development Program of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation for over a decade and participated in the establishment of minority programs at the National Institutes of Health and the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology.

He became professor emeritus in 1988.

Friends and former students created the Harold Amos Fund in 2001, an endowed graduate fellowship for students in the department Amos once chaired.

According to Mekalanos, Amos will be remembered not only for his accomplishments, but also for his skill as an educator.

“[Amos] has been and continues to be the consummate teacher: available, approachable, knowledgeable and wise,” Mekalanos said in the e-mail. “Members of the Department of Microbiology and Molecular Genetics are forever grateful that we can say that Harold Amos has been our advisor, colleague, teacher and friend.”

Huang said he will always think of Amos’ personal characteristics.

“He could always find the basic goodness in everyone,” Huang said. “He loved french music and literature, but the main thing I will remember him by his is radiant vitality.”

According to Laura Weisel—administrator for the Department of Microbiology and Molecular Genetics—a memorial service is being planned for late April or early May.

Amos is survived by five siblings; his brother, Howard, as well as four sisters, Iola Thomas, Margaret Johnson, Joyce Hester and Florine Williams.