Sept. 21, 2006
Vol. 26 No. 1

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    Devoted teacher Hoffmann studied brain’s neuron connections

    A respected neuropharmacologist and a revered teacher, Philip C. Hoffmann, Professor Emeritus in Neurobiology, Pharmacology and Physiology, died Friday, July 21, at the University’s Bernard Mitchell Hospital. Hoffmann, who had been battling prostate cancer, was 70.

    In collaboration with colleagues Alfred Heller and Beatrice Garber, Hoffmann spent more than two decades studying how the nerve cells that communicate via the chemical messenger dopamine connect with one another in the developing brain. The three scientists assembled small aggregates of nerve cells, known informally as “mini-brains,” and used them to study how specific groups of neurons in the brain find each other and establish connections. They subsequently used these clusters of neurons to study how various drugs of abuse, such as methamphetamine, could disrupt that process and damage those connections.

    Hoffmann also was known as a devoted teacher and taught the basic pharmacology course to second-year medical students for 30 years.

    “He was a fantastic person,” said Heller, Professor in Neurobiology, Pharmacology and Physiology. “He was respected for his broad knowledge and his theoretical approach to the science, but he also was known as an outstanding teacher. He was totally open to his students, and he spent an enormous amount of time preparing for each class.”

    “Philip was a splendid person,” said Eugene Goldwasser, the Alice Hogge and Arthur A. Baer Professor Emeritus of Biochemistry & Molecular Biology. “He began his career as a creative and meticulous researcher, but he became more and more involved in teaching, to which he was absolutely devoted. He never shortchanged his students, and many of them kept in contact with him for years after they had finished his class and moved on to other institutions.”

    Hoffmann was born June 18, 1936, in Evanston, Ill. His father was a naval engineer, and the family moved often while he was growing up. He attended high school in Utah and South Carolina before enrolling in 1953 at the University, where he spent most of his career.

    He completed a B.S. in 1957, spent one year in graduate study at the University of California, Berkeley, then returned to Chicago, where he earned his Ph.D. in pharmacology in 1962. After a year of post-doctoral research in Germany and Sweden, he joined the faculty at Chicago in 1963 as an Instructor in Pharmacology.

    Hoffmann rose steadily, becoming an Assistant Professor in 1966, an Associate Professor in 1971 and a Professor in 1980. He took on additional teaching and administrative duties, serving as a senior adviser, and later a collegiate master, for teaching biological sciences to undergraduate students. He received a Llewellyn John and Harriet Manchester Quantrell Award for Excellence in Undergraduate Teaching in 1971, the basic science teaching award from the Pritzker School of Medicine in 1977, 1982 and 1984, and the Amoco Foundation award in 1994 for distinguished contributions to undergraduate teaching.

    One of his undergraduate students, Guy Le Breton, was inspired to concentrate in pharmacology after taking Hoffmann’s course. “Chicago was one of only two universities that granted bachelor’s degrees in pharmacology,” Le Breton said. Later he worked in Hoffmann’s lab and returned to graduate school at Chicago, where he got his Ph.D. “Phil stuck his neck out for me. He was like a surrogate father. When my son Phillip was born, of course I had him in mind when we chose the name.” Le Breton is now a professor of pharmacology at the University of Illinois at Chicago.

    After retirement, Hoffmann continued to teach in the part-time Master of Liberal Arts Program, where his classes focused on the social and political implications of pharmacology. In 2002, he received the University’s Gold Key Award for service to the Biological Sciences Division and the University.

    Despite his considerable teaching load, Hoffmann remained active in the laboratory, publishing more than 50 journal articles. He served for many years on the editorial board of the Journal of Pharmacology and Experimental Therapeutics as well as on pharmacology and biomedical sciences study sections for the National Institutes of Health.

    Hoffmann also was a lifelong devotee and supporter of opera, theater, music and architecture, not to mention history and baseball. “In our household, he was the go-to guy for all the sports and history crossword puzzle clues,” said Chris Lonn, Hoffmann’s partner of 34 years, with whom he spent much of his retirement at their Michigan summer home and traveling with the Chicago Architecture Foundation.

    In addition to his partner Lonn, his brother Bob Hoffmann of Bethesda, Md., survives him.

    A memorial service is being planned for Tuesday, October 3, at 3 p.m. in the Donnelly Biological Sciences Learning Center, 947 E. 57th St., Room 109/115.

    A reception will follow.