Harvard Medical School professor Norman L. Letvin ’71, who was renowned as one of the scientific community’s leaders in the quest to develop an AIDS vaccine, was remembered after his death last month for not only his groundbreaking research but also his welcoming demeanor, musical gifts, and devotion to family.
Letvin, a pioneer in the use of non-human primates in AIDS vaccine research, died of pancreatic cancer on May 28 at Brigham and Women's Hospital. He was 62.
After graduating summa cum laude from Harvard, Letvin earned his M.D. from Harvard Medical School in 1975. While completing post-graduate training at the University of Pennsylvania, Letvin married Marion Stein ’71, a fellow doctor. The two returned to Boston, where Letvin completed his senior residency at Massachusetts General Hospital.
In the early 1980s, Letvin discovered simian immunodeficiency virus, a virus similar to HIV that causes an AIDS-like illness in monkeys. That momentous finding led to a workable way for scientists to test HIV vaccines.
From 1994 until his death, he served as chief of the Division of Viral Pathogenesis at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center. He also edited the AIDS section of Science for 13 years.
Those who knew Letvin remembered his stunning intuition as a scientist.
“I think he just had a natural talent for asking the right questions in science,” his wife Marion said. “He knew how to set up experiments in a way that whatever the results were, the data would be useful.”
Though his laboratory at Beth Israel Deaconess was at the forefront of vital AIDS research, Letvin did not foster a tense working environment, colleagues recalled.
“His door was always open. He made everyone feel that he was extremely approachable,” said Wendy W. Yeh, a Medical School professor who worked in Letvin’s lab.
According to Igor J. Koralnik, another colleague, a popular joke in the laboratory was that even though Letvin did not own a cellphone, he remained in touch with everybody through his open-door policy.
“You’d pop in and he'd be very busy correcting papers or grants, but he would always be open—you'd never have to make appointments,” Koralnik remembered.
Letvin’s stringent editing of papers written by his lab team came to be known as “Letvinization” by the staff. Medical School professor Sampa Santra recalled that Letvin would ask his team to submit triple-spaced papers with wide margins to leave room for his extensive comments.
“He was clearly a very good writer,” said Mohammed Asmal ’95, a Medical School instructor. “And when it came time to write papers or grants, it was great to have timely feedback from him. He had a wonderful way of just being able to sit down and read through everyone’s grants and papers, which was no small feat because his lab had so many people.”
Andrew J. McMichael, a professor at Oxford University who collaborated on AIDS research with Letvin, recalled the sense of humor that he brought to his lab.
When in RomeJust as practice was about to begin, jovial Peter bounded toward us, literally leaping off his bike, leaving a fellow schoolmate to deal with the trepid combination of mallets and a tipping motorcycle. “How did you sleep? Did you get to the field all right? This is my friend! Have you sorted out horses? You excited? Oh this is so great!”