Ohio State mourns the loss of legendary researcher Ronald Glaser
The Ohio State University is mourning the loss of a home-grown research icon who, with his wife and research partner, pioneered discoveries in the role of stress in disease and healing.
Ronald Glaser died Wednesday, April 3, five years after he was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease.
Twenty-three years ago, The Ohio State University Board of Trustees approved a proposal from a group of researchers that included Glaser to establish the Institute for Behavioral Medicine Research.
A team of seven faculty from four colleges had begun collaborating in 1982 on studies that defined the mind-body connection as much more than a New Age concept. By 1996, when the institute was approved, the 12-member group constituted one of the largest teams in the world studying the relationship between stress and disease using human participants.
Just three years after the institute (IBMR) was established, the university landed $18 million in National Institutes of Health funding – one of the largest federal awards to Ohio State researchers at that time – to study the effects of stress on human health and immunity.
Glaser, a faculty member since 1978, was the principal investigator on those grants. He served as the IBMR’s first, and only, director until 2014, when he was succeeded by his wife and longtime research partner, Janice Kiecolt-Glaser.
Glaser and Kiecolt-Glaser – Ron and Jan to their colleagues and friends – conducted a stress-and-health research program over a 30-year span replete with authentic scientific breakthroughs. Designing studies that combined psychological stressors with blood samples and wounds to the skin, they showed – on a cellular level – the insidious way in which stress can sabotage physical health.
They were innovators in the field of psychoneuroimmunology (PNI) – the study of how behavior influences the interaction of the central nervous, immune and endocrine systems. In 2010, The New York Times Magazine featured Ron and Jan in a piece in which they were described as the duo behind “some of today’s most interesting research on the relationship between marriage and health.” Their own marriage was both a novelty and the primary source of the strength of their partnership.
Research Communications headlines about their work offer a glimpse into just a few of their hundreds of significant discoveries.
Glaser’s many achievements are detailed in an obituary published at this link. A memorial will be held at First Community Church, 1320 Cambridge Blvd., on Monday, April 8, at 2 p.m. in the Burkart Chapel.
The Ohio State Research Communications office asked Glaser’s friends and colleagues to share their memories with the university community:
William Malarkey, associate director of the IBMR and director of the Ohio State Clinical Research Center
You know, he had a real passion for research, it was exceedingly important to him, both the search for new knowledge and the ability to train young people. Watching graduate students and post-docs grow gave him a lot of enjoyment. He certainly enjoyed being a major driver in terms of developing the IBMR. That gave him a real sense of achievement, putting together that multidisciplinary group and that passion continued throughout his research career.
Ron was intense in everything he did. He really got excited about new findings. He came from a ‘hard science’ background and it was unbelievable to him that stress – the ‘soft science’ could have such an impact on what he considered the hard science, the endocrine and immune systems. I don’t think he ever lost that surprise in seeing how these systems talked to one another.
And he loved driving his cars – he loved sports cars (a red and white Corvette in particular.) And they had to be old. He was a collector and would just love to take off and ride around. His license plate was “VIRUS.”
You realize how much he enjoyed working with Jan? They met at a faculty picnic here at Ohio State. It was kind of a match made in heaven. His career, and his life, changed then.
Joan Malarkey, longtime friend
They were both academics and that’s what they loved. He really loved Jan as a person and also as a researcher. He was very fond of her and very proud of her achievement.
John Sheridan, associate director of the IBMR, professor of biosciences in the College of Dentistry and creator of an animal research model by which mice are subjected to stress that resemble a person’s response to persistent life stressors
Ron Glaser had a major impact early in my career at OSU. I was an assistant professor in the College of Medicine and I wanted a joint appointment in his department of medical microbiology and immunology. Ron took me to lunch at the Faculty Club and started telling me about the exciting research that he was doing with Dr. Jan Kiecolt-Glaser. This of course was about the examination of the effect of stress on the immune system of medical students.
Out of the blue, he said we need an animal model of stress to further test some of our ideas. I wanted that appointment. It took more than five years to get the model right.
Jonathan Godbout, assistant director for basic science, Institute for Behavioral Medicine Research, and professor in the Center for Brain and Spinal Cord Repair and Department of Neuroscience
Dr. Ronald Glaser is a legend in psychoneuroimmunology research with many landmark studies in stress and immunity. He was a pioneer and leader of our field. I think Ron is the only person on the OSU medical center campus to be given his own physical building, the IBMR, to grow his institute. I was the first hire for this institute in 2005. In fact, Dr. Glaser was the only person to offer me a faculty job out of all the (many) applications that I sent out. He was a great mentor to me and told me that I was “seed corn” to help the institute grow.
Ron was also one of the few OSU people ever to come to my house for our Godbout summer party. I am sure he had better places to be, but he was always supportive of me and would be the first person at the party! I am forever grateful for the opportunity that Dr. Glaser provided me. I am hopeful that I made him proud.
Rest in peace, Ron. I am glad I had a chance to learn from you and be a part of the IBMR.
Lisa Christian, associate professor of psychiatry and member of the IBMR
Ron was an enthusiastic and energetic colleague. He always emphasized the importance of recruiting the right people to the IBMR – he thought of the IBMR like a family and believed that, no matter how good someone's research, they should only become a member of the group if they were a good person to be around.
Ron loved sushi. He took me out to a sushi lunch when I got my first grant, and told me he thought it was always important to take the time to celebrate these milestones.
When I was pregnant with my first child, I worked up until the day I delivered. I remember him joking that he would roll me over to the hospital in an office chair if needed. And he came to the hospital to visit the new baby after he was born, which was very thoughtful. Ron was always available for a question or to provide his input on things. He always said that there are always ups and downs in academia, and that it is important to remember that “this too shall pass” for the bad things, but also the good ones. So it is important not get too wrapped up in the problems and also to appreciate the good things when they happen.
Ron was a great mentor and colleague.
Earle Holland, retired assistant vice president for research communications
The university taught me what stress really is, but it was Ron Glaser who taught me what it did to my body. He eventually became my vision of the consummate biomedical scientist but, when we first met, he was just a young, energetic researcher and I a fledgling science writer.
Together with wife and research partner, Janice Kiecolt-Glaser, he was just beginning the career of studies that explained how psychological stress impacts the human immune system – a radical concept then but accepted science now. Through three decades of studies using medical students, newlyweds, arguing spouses, grieving partners, divorcees, cancer patients and other groups facing stress, Ron and Jan meticulously dissected the toll it took on people’s health.
But while much of the research done by others at the time focused on people’s perceptions of their own health, Ron was busy disassembling blood components and hormone levels to understand the chemistry of those changes, resulting in a clearer picture of how immunity really works. What set his work apart was the reliability of the data he offered, the rising and falling of certain cytokines, the increase or decrease in particular cell types that fight disease. And I was privileged to be able to be the first to report each new discovery.
Writers know most scientists are excited by their work but Ron’s excitement was somehow different, almost like a kid unwrapping an unexpected present. Every few months, he’d call, explain the latest study and suddenly suggest implications the findings might have with such exuberance that I’d be swept along with him. For Ron, it was the discovery and what it might mean.
Toward the end of my career, when Ron and I would meet to chat about their work, the conversations often strayed from just the science. We had become friends, not just colleagues. As a failed science student, I often wondered what life would have been like if I had a mentor like Ron. Aside from the hundreds of publications he authored, or the tens of millions of dollars in research funding he earned, it was his ability to lead and inspire others that set him apart. He did that for me. For that, I’m truly thankful.
Kathi Heffner, former Ohio State postdoctoral researcher (2001-2003) and current associate professor of nursing, medicine and psychiatry at the University of Rochester Medical Center
I had admired Jan and Ron from afar when I was an undergraduate and then graduate student following their pioneering work. When I had the tremendous opportunity to work with Jan as a postdoc, that opportunity came with an unexpected, additional supporter. Ron, at his core, was an unwavering advocate of trainees, of the postdoctoral program, the OSU PNI group and the field at large. His legacy lives on!