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In Memoriam: Fred S. Wright, MD

November 16, 2023

We are saddened to share the news that Fred S. Wright, MD, professor emeritus of medicine (nephrology) and of cellular and molecular physiology, died peacefully at home after a long illness on Sunday, November 5, 2023, at age 86.

Wright dedicated over 50 years to Yale School of Medicine and the VA Connecticut Healthcare System, advocating for research, fostering the growth of investigation, and mentoring many faculty and researchers at both institutions.

Wright was born in St. Louis, MO on June 10, 1937. When he was a year old, his family relocated to Whitefish Bay, WI, a Milwaukee suburb, where he spent his childhood. His elementary school years shaped his love of science. Wright credited his decision to go to medical school to two of his childhood science teachers.

In addition to his passion for science, Wright was a star athlete, winning the Wisconsin state diving championship title in high school. He also earned the rank of Eagle Scout in Boy Scouts.

He earned his undergraduate and medical degrees from the University of Michigan, where he competed on the men’s diving team as an undergrad. In medical school, Wright loved physiology, and he did research with Physiology Chair Horace Davenport, PhD, who was a pioneer in gastric physiology. But a seminar by James O. Davis, MD, PhD, from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) spurred Wright’s interest in salt balance, particularly the physiology of aldosterone and its regulation of salt balance in edematous states like congestive heart failure. Wright therefore applied for and was accepted for postdoctoral research training in the Davis lab at NIH to begin after residency training.

After receiving his MD degree in 1963, Wright pursued internal medicine residency training at Johns Hopkins in Baltimore, MD. Although Wright would never practice medicine, his research and administrative career was informed by his outstanding in-depth knowledge of medicine from his residency training at Johns Hopkins.

Wright joined the Davis lab at NIH as a staff investigator in 1965. When Davis left NIH, Wright switched to the Laboratory of Kidney and Electrolyte Metabolism at the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute (then the National Heart Institute). This laboratory was directed by Robert Berliner, MD, one of the foundational leaders of the field of renal physiology and later the dean of Yale School of Medicine (YSM). While working in the Berliner lab, Wright learned micropuncture and microperfusion methods to study renal tubule physiology.

A chance meeting at the NIH with Gerhard Giebisch, MD, who became Sterling Professor and Chair of Physiology at YSM, would bring Wright to New Haven to work in Giebisch’s department starting in 1968. Wright was initially appointed as instructor, and subsequently was promoted to assistant professor in 1969, and associate professor of physiology in 1973.

In 1977, Wright was recruited by Chair Samuel Thier, MD, to join the Department of Medicine and move his lab from the physiology department on Cedar Street in New Haven to a much larger space on the campus of the VA Connecticut Healthcare System in West Haven. His research program flourished at the VA, and he was promoted to professor of medicine and physiology in 1982.

In 1983, Wright was named associate chief of staff (ACOS) for research, the major leadership position he held until his retirement in 2022. For many years, Wright maintained his lab along with his VA leadership position, but he eventually closed his lab to devote maximal effort to his institutional role. Wright also served as acting chief of staff at VA Connecticut during 1995, and then again from 1998 – 1999.

Although Wright became widely admired and revered for his career as a research administrator and academic leader, he was also a distinguished investigator who made major discoveries in renal physiology and pathophysiology. He made extremely important contributions in at least three areas: the feedback mechanisms that regulate glomerular filtration, the mechanisms that affect urinary potassium excretion, and the mechanisms that determine the effects of diuretics on the kidney. His prominence in the field of renal physiology was reflected by his service as associate editor of the American Journal of Physiology: Renal Fluid and Electrolyte Physiology from 1976-1983, and as secretary and then chair of the Renal Section of the American Physiological Society from 1978 – 1982. He also served on several study sections and grant review groups.

In addition to conducting landmark research, Wright was an extraordinarily outstanding mentor. His mentees included both PhD basic scientists and many physician-scientist trainees who went on to highly productive research careers, including many leadership positions as division chiefs, department chairs, and heads of research programs and centers.

Wright prided himself in mentoring many fellows within the nephrology section and the physiology department, including current Department of Internal Medicine Chair, Gary V. Désir, MD. Désir credits Wright with being immensely influential not only on his own career, but also in building the research infrastructure at VA Connecticut.

As a Yale faculty member, Wright was devoted to medical student teaching, participating as a lecturer and weekly small group workshop leader in the physiology course. Moreover, he served as chair of the YSM Curriculum Committee from 1978 – 1984.

Wright had major impact on VA research programs locally and nationally. As associate chief of staff for research for almost 40 years, Wright was tireless and unbiased in advocating for Yale VA investigators. He worked with equal care for those in his area of investigation and across the spectrum of science from basic to highly translational work. He came to be a highly respected senior leader in VA research administration, strongly influencing national policy and practice. He was a member of innumerable committees at the local and national level related to VA research. He chaired the Research Advisory Group for the Veterans Administration in Washington D.C. from 1985 – 1987. As part of the VA’s Office of Research and Development, Wright chaired the Career Development Review Committee, Health Services Research from 1998 – 2003. Wright was president of the VA Connecticut Research and Education Foundation for 17 years, until his 2022 retirement. He was a member of the Committee on Health Research and the Privacy of Health Information of the Institute of Medicine from 2007 – 2009.

Wright was also active with the Connecticut Heart Association, the Connecticut United for Research Excellence, and the Gaylord Hospital Research Institute.

Wright retired on February 28, 2022, and was recognized with emeritus status in March 2022. He was honored by Yale School of Medicine at a retirement ceremony on April 5, 2022, during which the school celebrated his impact and legacy. In 2023, the Veterans Integrated Service Network Career Development Award was renamed in his honor. The two-year grant supports junior VA researchers working within the New England network.

Wright provided a shining example of how to live an academic life devoted to the very highest ideals of citizenship and service to others. His legacy will long endure through the lives and contributions of all the people whom he so profoundly influenced by his brilliant and devoted academic leadership, and who have benefited from his very many individual acts of extraordinary generosity and kindness.

Wright was a careful and thoughtful man, usually serious in demeanor, but he harbored a wry sense of humor enjoyed by those who knew him well. He revered science, loved his family, and cared deeply about his home—a pre-Civil War house which he twice painted single handedly and whose history he meticulously investigated after his retirement.

He is survived by his wife of 61 years, Carol, whom he married while he was in medical school; his daughter, Catherine; and his granddaughter, Alice.

Submitted by Julie Parry on November 16, 2023