Edmund H. Sonnenblick, MD
Edmund H. Sonnenblick, the Edmond J. Safra Distinguished University Professor of Medicine and Chief Emeritus the Division of Cardiology at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine, died on September 22, 2007, after a long struggle with esophageal cancer. Born in New Haven, Conn, he graduated from Wesleyan University summa cum laude and Phi Beta Kappa in 1954, and from Harvard Medical School cum laude and Alpha Omega Alpha in 1958. He then entered the residency program in internal medicine at Columbia-Presbyterian in New York City. In 1960, he joined the laboratory of Dr Stanley Sarnoff at the National Heart Institute and began his seminal work on cardiac function and myocardial muscle mechanics. From that laboratory in 1962, at the age of 30, he was the sole author of the pioneering paper “Force-Velocity Relations in Mammalian Heart Muscle,” published in the American Journal of Physiology. Up until that time there had been little focus on the fundamental physiological properties of the myocardium. This article, drawing on concepts of muscle mechanics as studied by A.V. Hill and others, led the development of a new field focusing on myocardial function as it relates to normal and abnormal heart performance. In 1963, Dr Sonnenblick joined the cardiology branch of the National Institutes of Health and published a series of articles, alone and with Drs Eugene Braunwald and John Ross and others, applying the concepts of preload, afterload, and contractility to normal and pathological states. He also led investigations into the structural bases of mechanical function, myocardial energetics, and the actions of catecholamines and thyroid hormone on the myocardium. All of these contributions revolutionized cardiology and led to concepts that are used in the care of patients daily by physicians throughout the world. For example, standard therapy today includes decreasing preload and/or afterload in failing hearts to improve muscle shortening and stroke volume. Our knowledge of the risks and benefits of increasing contractility in ischemic hearts comes directly from his work. ⇓
In 1967, Dr Sonnenblick was recruited to the Peter Bent Brigham Hospital as director of cardiovascular research and co-director, with Dr Richard Gorlin, of the cardiovascular unit. There he continued his productive research and trained a group of cardiologists who went on to be leaders of their own cardiology research laboratories and divisions of cardiology.
In 1975, he joined the Albert Einstein College of Medicine as professor of medicine and the first director of a newly formed cardiology division. In that role, Dr Sonnenblick needed to both recruit a full clinical team and develop a cardiovascular science program. Soon there were several new grant-supported laboratory scientists in coronary physiology, muscle mechanics, and electrophysiology, along with a cadre of clinical teachers and clinical investigators. He demonstrated his leadership qualities and partnered with the already established cardiology program at the Montefiore Medical Center, so that very quickly a joint National Institutes of Health research fellowship training grant was awarded, along with a National Institutes of Health–supported program project grant, of which Dr Sonnenblick was the principal investigator. His own research flourished, but in this broader role he had a larger institutional effect. He was instrumental in developing the Einstein Cardiovascular Research Center, and during his tenure he supported the development of one of the first molecular cardiology programs, which was headed by Dr Leslie Leinwand. During his years as chief of cardiology at Einstein, Dr Sonnenblick continued to train clinical cardiologists and investigators, and he stimulated research in both the wet laboratory and the clinic. He and Drs Steven Factor and Edward Kirk defined the nature of the border zone in myocardial infarction. He authored publications on the effects of hypertension and diabetes on the myocardium. He stimulated clinical publications on congestive heart failure. During these years he also established a partnership with Dr Piero Anversa’s group at New York Medical College and participated actively in their research.
After stepping down from his division directorship in 1996, Dr Sonnenblick remained active as an important contributor until the very end. He continued his research alliance with Dr Anversa, and his contribution of ideas to the innovative research from that laboratory was of inestimable value.
Dr Sonnenblick was a person of great warmth and caring. He also had tremendous courage and perseverance. Despite the medical difficulties he faced during the last year of his life, he always attended the teaching conferences of the division, contributing his uniquely brilliant insights. In the past year, he made teaching rounds in the coronary care unit and on the congestive heart failure service. A recent anonymous evaluation of teachers by the cardiology fellows rated Dr Sonnenblick among the very few most superior preceptors, separated at the top from a large number of other highly regarded instructors.
Dr Sonnenblick published over 600 articles on topics too numerous to cite here, but a small sampling is included in the online-only Data Supplement. He was editor of or contributor to many textbooks, including Mechanisms of Contraction of the Normal and Failing Heart with Drs Braunwald and Ross; Hurst’s The Heart; and Cardiovascular Pharmacotherapeutics with Dr William Frishman. He was on the editorial board of most of the world’s major cardiovascular journals and was editor, along with Dr Michael Lesh, of Progress in Cardiovascular Diseases. He was elected to the major academic societies, including the Association of University Cardiologists, the American Society for Clinical Investigation, and the Association of American Physicians, and served on the boards of and in leadership positions in many. He served on numerous national and international committees and gave hundreds of lectures all over the world. He has received numerous awards from organizations in the United States and abroad, including the American College of Cardiology’s Distinguished Scientist Award, and in November 2007 he was recognized posthumously with the Research Achievement Award of the American Heart Association.
Dr Sonnenblick was one of the most prominent and important cardiologists in the history of American medicine. His brilliant theoretical insights and experimental research contributions led to tremendous improvements in patient care. His educational publications and personal training of medical students, residents, and fellows has had an incalculable effect on the daily practice of medicine. His warmth and generosity had a tremendous impact on those lucky enough to work with him. His intellect, his presence, and his friendship will be sorely missed.
The online-only Data Supplement, which contains a selected bibliography, is available at http://circ.ahajournals.org/cgi/content/full/116/23/2760/DC1.