Obituary — Bernard W. Agranoff


Bernard William Agranoff, professor emeritus of biological chemistry and senior research scientist emeritus, died Oct. 21.

A giant in the field of neuroscience, he studied the biochemistry of the brain and was the first to show that memory requires protein synthesis. He made numerous other seminal discoveries and mentored more than 60 trainees. For 12 years, he directed and reshaped U-M’s Mental Health Research Institute, which has since been renamed the Michigan Neuroscience Institute.

Bernard William Agranoff
Bernard W. Agranoff

Agranoff was born in Detroit in 1926 and attended Cass Technical High School. Following graduation, “Bernie” entered the Navy Premedical Officer Training Program and was assigned to the University of Michigan, where he obtained a degree in chemistry in two years. He obtained an M.D. degree from Wayne State University in 1950 followed by postdoctoral study at MIT with Francis Schmitt, one of the founders of the field of neuroscience.

In 1952, Bernie joined the Section of Lipid Chemistry at the National Institutes of Health, where he developed his long-standing interest in the role of lipids in cell signaling within the nervous system. During this time, Bernie identified key intermediates required for the synthesis of phosphatidylinositol and cholesterol.

In 1961, Bernie moved to U-M as an associate professor of biological chemistry and member of the MHRI, and was promoted to full professor in 1965. He continued his studies of phospholipids but was encouraged by Ralph Gerard, the director of the laboratories of the institute, to explore the biochemistry of learning and memory.

In the mid-1960s, Bernie published several groundbreaking studies demonstrating that protein synthesis was required for long-term memory formation, which led to an article in Scientific American that was reprinted 100,000 times with copies distributed to schools, colleges and universities. This article was the stimulus for several prominent neuroscientists to enter the field.

Bernie was among the first to propose that neuroplasticity was essential for learning and memory and his laboratory further explored the biochemical mechanisms underlying the brain’s capacity to remodel itself.

From 1983-95, Bernie was the director of the MHRI. He recruited several faculty members into the institute, moving it squarely toward neuroscience and focusing on the then new molecular and genetic approaches to the study of the brain. He created a vibrant and highly collaborative scientific community that has remained at the core of the current MNI.  

Among his many visionary contributions, Bernie foresaw the importance of human brain neuroimaging in understanding the neurobiology of brain disorders and played a seminal role in the establishment of a PET facility at U-M. He is one of the founding editors of the classic textbook “Basic Neurochemistry,” now in its 50th year. He also served on the editorial boards of several journals.

Bernie received many accolades for his research, including election to the National Academy of Medicine and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. He was a past president of both the American and International Societies for Neurochemistry, and served on the Society for Neuroscience council.

One of Bernie’s major legacies will be the more than 60 graduate students and postdocs who trained in his lab. His trainees have gone on to successful careers and are all greatly indebted to Bernie for his mentorship and guidance. His trainees, colleagues and friends will always remember Bernie’s friendship, his wonderful sense of humor, and the unforgettable culinary adventures provided by his wife, the late Ricky Agranoff, an accomplished and talented chef.

Bernie is survived by his two sons, William and Adam Agranoff, and their families. He will be greatly missed.

Submitted by the Michigan Neuroscience Institute


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