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.
“That always helped meetings along—it helped when things were difficult and when things were going well as well,” McMichael said.
Letvin’s brilliance was not confined to the realm of science. He was first clarinetist at his high school and at Interlochen Arts Camp, which he attended for three years, according to Marion. Though his musical prowess garnered him acceptances at Juilliard and the Curtis Institute of Music, he chose to attend Harvard, where he won the Harvard Concerto Contest in 1969 and played in the Harvard-Radcliffe Orchestra, whose alumni organization he later led.
While he was in medical school, he served as a music tutor in Eliot House.
His passion for music continued throughout his life.
“When the alarm went off in the morning, it didn’t matter where it was in the music—he would name it after listening to a bar and he’d turn it off,” his wife remembered. “Then I’d turn it on again to see if he was right, and he always was.”
According to Koralnik, Letvin was discreet about his performances because he didn’t want his colleagues to feel obliged to listen to him.
When co-workers did see him play, however, they were amazed by his skill.
“He would be a totally transformed person onstage,” Santra said. “You wouldn’t believe he did anything other than music.”
A fan of high art of all sorts, Letvin also enjoyed attended Ontario’s Stratford Shakespeare Festival annually.
“He was a voracious reader and he read very quickly,” Marion Letvin said. “He was an insomniac, so he’d be up all night reading. He was known for recommending books to people.”
Letvin was also known for his care for his wife and children.
“They were a very, very closely knit family,” McMichael said. “He drew strength and support from them and gave them tremendous support. He was a family man, and I feel that it was a very important part of his character.”
According to his daughter Elizabeth M. Letvin ’13, he achieved a healthy balance between his work and his family life.
“My siblings and I were all very lucky, and we all know it,” she said.
Letvin is survived by his wife and children, Andrea, Rebecca, Adam, and Elizabeth, three of whom attended Harvard College.
A private funeral service was held on May 29, and a memorial service will take place in the fall. Donations can be made to the Harvard-Radcliffe Orchestra or Interlochen Arts Camp.
—Staff writer Petey E. Menz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.