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University of Colorado Denver

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Profiles and Passings

Gene Erwin - In Memoriam


The Passing of an Academic Giant

Gene Erwin died November 30, 2013 at his home in Montrose, Colo.  He was born November 1, 1937 in Cahone, a small town in Western Colorado.  He is survived by his wife of fifty four years, Sally, two sons, Gary and David and one daughter, Jennifer. 

He attended the University of California in Berkley having earned a four year,  tuition free scholarship, one of only two high school students in California to do so. He  transferred to the University of Colorado School of Pharmacy where he received his bachelor’s of science and master’s of science degrees with Harold Heim.  He then obtained his Ph.D. at the Department of Pharmacology at the School of Medicine at the University of Colorado where he was the first to study brain aldehyde dehydrogenase, a mitochondrial enzyme.  He took a postdoctoral fellowship in the Department of Physiological Chemistry at Johns Hopkins University.  While at Hopkins he and colleagues carried out important work on monoamine oxidase, showing that it resided in the outer membrane of the mitochondria.  This was an important finding since the product of monoamine oxidase oxidation of biogenic amines are the corresponding aldehydes.  This study meshed nicely with his interest in aldehyde dehydrogenase and later with his pioneering studies on aldehyde reductase.

He returned to the School of Pharmacy at Boulder while Harold Heim was Dean  and eventually became Dean of the School succeeding Harold Heim.  He served in this capacity from 1974 to 1984.  Simultaneously he was instrumental in obtaining one of the first Alcohol Research Centers in the nation.  This was a collaborative effort between the School of Pharmacy, Institute for Behavioral Genetics and the Department of Pharmacology at the School of Medicine.  He was either Scientific Director or co-Scientific Director of this enterprise for 26 years. 

During this time he became well known for his studies on selective breeding for alcohol related behavioral traits.  He studied the Short and Long Sleep mice  publishing many important papers.  He was the first to show that the differential sedative reaction of these mice to ethanol was not due to differences of metabolism of ethanol but was due to differences “above the neck”.  He selectively bred mice for High and Low Acute Functional Tolerance to ethanol.  In addition he made seminal contributions to the role of neurotensin in the actions of ethanol and the role of aldehyde reductase in the metabolism of biogenic aldehydes.  He was awarded the Research Society on Alcoholism excellence in research award in 2001at their meeting in Montreal Canada.  He also received the Distinguished Coloradoan award from the School of Pharmacy at the University of Colorado in 1993 and the Florence Rena Sabin Award from the University in 1995. 

During his academic career he published well over 100 papers, reviews and edited books.  He trained many graduate students and postdoctoral fellows many of whom are active in the alcohol and other research fields.  He was a stimulating research collaborator and tireless worker in the laboratory. 

Gene was an avid and consummate fisherman.  He and his fishing companions had many interesting and productive days fishing.  This group went on an annual fishing trip from 1968 until 2011, fishing mainly in Colorado but also in Idaho, Wyoming, Utah and Alaska.  He and his wife, Sally have a summer home between Creede and Lake City, Colorado that was the center of many fishing trips.  After his retirement from the School of Pharmacy he moved to Montrose where he became active in teaching young fishermen the rudiments to fly fishing.  He always had his fly tying kit on fishing trips and could “match the hatch” with alacrity.

Those who wish to contribute to his memory may do so through the University of Colorado Foundation designated for the School of Pharmacy in honor of Gene Erwin and sent to the School at 12850 Montview Blvd., C238, RM V20-4132C, Aurora, CO 80045, Att. Sheldon Steinhauser, or the American Cancer Society.