Frank J. Dixon, pioneering immunologist and founder of The Scripps Research Institute, died on Friday, Feb. 8. He was 87.
“To all of us who were fortunate enough to know and work with him, Frank was the model of the modern scientist,” said Scripps Research President Richard A. Lerner. Lerner said Dixon demonstrated “equal creativity and talent both as an investigator in the laboratory and as the institute’s first director.”
“He never wanted to a be practicing doctor,” his wife Marion said, “He always wanted to be a scientist.”
Marion Dixon said that her husband first came to the San Diego area in 1942, when he was in the Navy. Later, when he was invited to come to La Jolla to work, she said, he came because, “not only was this the ideal climate from the point of view of geography, but it was also ideal from the point of view of science because he would be independent.”
Dixon was born in St. Paul, Minn. on March 9, 1920. After two years of undergraduate study at the University of Minnesota, he entered medical school there and by 1943 he had received B.S., B.M. and M.D. degrees. After three years of service in the U.S. Navy, he became a research assistant at Harvard Medical School’s Department of Pathology. Later, he taught for several years at Washington University Medical School in St. Louis. In 1950, at the age of 30, he became chair of the department of pathology at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine, a position he held for 10 years.
In 1961, he came to La Jolla with four other young scientists to establish the department of experimental pathology at Scripps Clinic and Research Foundation, forming the core of what would later become The Scripps Research Institute. He led this program for two and a half decades.
Dixon was recognized as a superb mentor to young scientists, many of whom have gone on to distinguished careers in the biomedical sciences. Marion Dixon said that Dixon was particularly proud that “he had trained people to go on who were thinkers and doers.”
Dixon’s scientific work covered a wide variety of human disorders, particularly those related to immunologic processes. Early in his career he analyzed and classified tumors of the testes and related histology of pathogenesis, prognosis and treatment. His later research in the immunological causes of kidney diseases led to his receipt of the Lasker Award, sometimes called the “American Nobel Prize.”
Over the years, Dixon received numerous other nationally and internationally recognized awards for his professional efforts.
These included the Honorary Fellow Award from the Royal College of Pathologists, an honorary degree from Washington University, the Jean Hamburger Award from the International Society of Nephrology, the Paul Klemperer Award from the New York Academy of Medicine, the Distinguished Service Award from the Lupus Foundation of America and the Parke-Davis Award from the American Society for Experimental Pathology.
He was elected to membership in the National Academy of Sciences. He also served as president of the American Association of Immunologists and the American Association of Pathologists.
Marion Dixon remembered her husband as a loving father, who “pushed” his children to keep their grades up. All three of the Dixons’ children graduated from La Jolla High.
“He loved this community,” Marion Dixon said, “He kept saying ‘I really did the right thing in coming here.’ He was very proud of La Jolla, and he loved living here.”
He is survived by his wife Marion, with whom he was married for 62 years; his three children, Janet, a professor of anthropology at the University of Illinois, Frank Jr., an artist and teacher in Santa Ana, and Michael, resident director at the Playwrights’ Center, Minneapolis, Minn; and four grandchildren.