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In Memoriam: John N. Forrest Jr., MD, 1938-2024

March 25, 2024

John N. Forrest Jr., MD, professor emeritus of medicine, died peacefully on March 19, 2024, at his home in New Haven surrounded by his family.

Forrest was born in Tamaqua, Pennsylvania, to John and Nell Forrest in July of 1938. He attended Ursinus College, where he majored in biology, served as class president for four years, and played both offensive and defensive end on the football team. He completed his medical school training at the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine and subsequently moved to New Haven for his internship. Forrest worked at Grace-New Haven Hospital as an intern and resident for Paul Beeson, MD, chair of the Department of Internal Medicine, from 1952 to 1965. Forrest was a member of Beeson’s last class of interns who were coined “The Iron Terns.”

After residency, Forrest served his country as an epidemic intelligence service officer with the U.S. Public Health Service, including work on cholera in Bangladesh and assignments in the department of preventive medicine at Harvard. In Boston he met Catherine Kiene, and the two of them moved back to New Haven when Forrest became a chief resident in Internal Medicine followed by a research fellowship in metabolism with Frank Epstein. Catherine earned her RN degree from the Yale School of Nursing (YSN) in 1971, joined the faculty at YSN, and in 2013 as part of the 90th anniversary of the school, was selected as one of 90 extraordinary alumnae of Yale School of Nursing. John and Catherine were married in 1971 at Marquand Chapel, and their home in Westville would become a fixture in the Yale and New Haven communities for the next 50 years, hosting regular dinner parties, housing visiting professors, and where there was always a tailgate before Yale-Harvard football games. Forrest was a longtime member of the New Haven Chorale and would spend Christmas mornings at Yale New Haven Hospital where he helped organize a concert group singing carols to patients.

Forrest had a passion for working with students. This was most evident at Yale though his efforts to organize support and oversight of student research activities and the medical student thesis. First formally required in 1839 for all medical students graduating from Yale, the MD thesis is considered a hallmark of the Yale System of Medical Education, and it is the oldest standing requirement of its kind among the nation’s medical schools. In the mid-1980s, Forrest successfully lobbied then-Dean Leon E. Rosenberg and Associate Dean Robert H. Gifford to create the Office of Student Research (OSR). The office was formally founded in 1987, and for the next 33 years Forrest served as its director.

During this time, he also established the combined MD-Master of Health Sciences Program, the START@Yale program, and the Intensive Pedagogical Experience (IPE). In 1991, he organized the inaugural Student Research Day and Farr Lecture, now in their 33rd year. Having started with limited funds to support student research, Forrest grew the OSR into an integral piece of the School of Medicine, eventually becoming the only principal investigator in the world to be on five NIH T35 training grants. In 2020, in recognition of his passion for student research and mentorship, his family and close friends established the John N. Forrest Endowed Fund for Mentorship in Student Research at YSM. In addition, each year on Student Research Day, the John N. Forrest Jr. Prize for mentorship in student research is presented to a faculty member who, through their dedication to working with students, represents the commitment and passion for student research that Forrest embodied.

Forrest’s own research focused on the pathophysiology and treatment of fluid and electrolyte disorders, including lithium-induced diabetes insipidus, and the syndrome of inappropriate antidiuretic hormone secretion. He published many high-impact studies including papers in the Journal of Clinical Investigation, the New England Journal of Medicine, and Science. He had a passion for scientific discovery and spent sabbatical years at the NIH in 1982 and at the Medical Research Council Laboratory of Molecular Biology in Cambridge, England, in 1989 and again in 1996 where he worked with Dr. Sydney Brenner. Using animal models to better understand human disease, Forrest also pioneered studies of the mechanisms and regulation of chloride transport in the salt gland of the dogfish shark, an ancient model for the thick ascending limb of the loop of Henle in the kidney.

He did much of this research with students, fellows, and faculty during the summers while working at the Mount Desert Island Biological Laboratory (MDIBL) in Bar Harbor, Maine. He worked as an investigator at the MDIBL for 46 summers and served as director of the institution from 1998 to 2009. During his decade as director of the lab he was the creative force behind establishing the Center for Marine Genomic Studies and he also oversaw the lab’s transition from a seasonal to a year-round institution. In addition to conducting experiments with students, Forrest was known for his love of outdoor adventure in Maine and would regularly lead students and colleagues on a hike up Katahdin Mountain via the Knife’s Edge Trail.

For half a century, beginning with his time as chief resident in 1969–1970, to his years as firm co-chief on the Beeson Medical Service from 1995 to 2009, until his retirement in 2020, Forrest could be found regularly at the bedsides of patients on the medical wards. He loved to challenge students on rounds to figure out patients' acid-base disturbance, and for each patient on his service he would conduct rounds at the bedside, often sitting next to the patient, holding their hand, while house-staff presented the case.

During his life, Forrest served as the president of multiple organizations including the Interurban Clinical Club, the MDI Biological Laboratory, and the American Heart Association of Connecticut, and he received numerous accolades including an honorary degree from Ursinus College in 2001 for recognition as “an internationally acclaimed physician-scientist, an inspiring teacher and medical educator, a compassionate physician and role model for medical students, and a discoverer of new genes and drugs from the sea.” In addition to his numerous publications, Forrest wrote several books including Remembering Paul Beeson, a book that details the life and work of his mentor and former Yale chair of medicine.

Forrest is survived by wife Catherine; three children John K., YSM ’05, Gwendolyn, and Suzanne, YSM ’13; his four grandchildren, William, Andrew, Rebecca, and Roselyn; his daughter-in-law Emily, and son-in-law Daniel Wong, YSM ’14.

Submitted by Robert Forman on March 25, 2024