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Vanderbilt mourns ‘consummate scientist’ Cunningham

Jun. 11, 2013, 2:09 PM

A memorial service for Leon W. Cunningham, Ph.D., professor emeritus and former chairman of the Department of Biochemistry at Vanderbilt University School of Medicine, will be held at 3 p.m. Thursday, June 13, at Calvary United Methodist Church at 3701 Hillsboro Road in Nashville.

Leon W. Cunningham, Ph.D.

Family and friends are invited to visitation before the service from 1-3 p.m. at the church.

Dr. Cunningham, 85, died Saturday, June 8, a day before his 86th birthday. His wife of 59 years, Jean Roberta Swingle Cunningham, died in 2007.

Dr. Cunningham was well known for his contributions to the fields of enzyme chemistry, glycoproteins and connective tissue biochemistry, and for his commitment to the department and to the graduate students he mentored.

“Leon Cunningham and I were friends of very long standing,” said Jan van Eys, M.D., Ph.D., clinical professor of Pediatrics, emeritus. “He was a dedicated scientist … (and) was most proud of the Ph.D. students for whom he was the primary thesis supervisor.”

He “was a consummate scientist with impeccable standards,” added Samuel Santoro, M.D., Ph.D., one of Dr. Cunningham’s former graduate students who now chairs the Department of Pathology, Microbiology and Immunology.

“The lessons I learned from him about how to approach science and how to be a scientist have guided my own career and resonate to this day,” Santoro said.

“Leon was on my Ph.D. committee at Vanderbilt during the years 1964-1968,” recalled Jackie Corbin, Ph.D., professor of Molecular Physiology and Biophysics, emeritus. “He was stern and demanding, but with a great sense of humor.

“He was also one of my favorite lecturers,” Corbin said. “Vanderbilt owes him so much. I will miss him.”

A native of Columbus, Ga., Dr. Cunningham earned his bachelor’s degree in Chemistry from Auburn University and his master’s and doctoral degrees in Chemistry from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

He was a postdoctoral research fellow at the University of Washington before joining the Vanderbilt faculty as assistant professor of Biochemistry in 1953. In 1961-62, he received a Special Fellowship from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) to pursue his research at the Netherlands National Defense laboratories in Rijswijk.

In 1965, Dr. Cunningham was promoted to professor of Biochemistry, and in 1967 became the medical school’s first associate dean for Biomedical Sciences. In 1973, he was named chairman of Biochemistry, a position he held until 1988.

During his tenure, the Department of Biochemistry became one of the leading departments in the country in NIH funding and its faculty received international recognition.

“I feel so lucky to have known and worked with him,” said Marlene Jayne, longtime administrator of the department. “He contributed so much to making Biochemistry a great department.”

Dr. Cunningham was a close personal friend of Stanley Cohen, Ph.D., Distinguished Professor of Biochemistry, emeritus, and in 1986 attended the awarding of Cohen’s Nobel Prize in Medicine or Physiology for his discovery of epidermal growth factor.

In 1988, Dr. Cunningham was named Harvie Branscomb Distinguished Professor, and returned to teaching and research until his retirement as professor emeritus in 1994.

Dr. Cunningham was a member of several scientific societies, including the American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology, the American Chemical Society and the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

He contributed to more than 100 scientific papers and to several books. “He was also very interested in the intersection of science and religion,” noted van Eys. Dr. Cunningham’s book on the subject, entitled “Old Truths, New Light,” was published last year.

Dr. Cunningham is survived by three children, Hugh Alan Cunningham of Dalton, Ga.; and Pamela Cunningham Hawkins and Sue Ellen Cunningham Miller, both of Nashville; four grandchildren and one great-granddaughter.

In lieu of flowers, memorial donations may be made to Community Care Fellowship, 511 South 8th Street, Nashville, Tenn., 37206, or to the Jean S. Cunningham Prayer Room ministry at Calvary United Methodist Church.

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