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Vanderbilt mourns loss of renowned scientist Exton

Dec. 28, 2022, 3:12 PM


John H. Exton, MBChB, MD, PhD

by Bill Snyder

John H. Exton, MBChB, MD, PhD, professor of Molecular Physiology and Biophysics, emeritus at Vanderbilt University, whose research provided fundamental insights into how many biologically active compounds control cellular physiology, died Dec. 18. He was 89.

A memorial service will be held at 11:30 a.m., Thursday, January 5, 2023, at St. George’s Episcopal Church at 4715 Harding Road in Nashville. Visitation at the church will begin at 10:30 a.m.

Dr. Exton was a member of the Vanderbilt University faculty from 1964 until his retirement in 2004. A native of New Zealand, he earned an MBChB degree from the University of New Zealand, and a PhD and medical degree from the University of Otago.

In 1963, Dr. Exton arrived at Vanderbilt for postdoctoral training under Charles Rawlinson “Rollo” Park, MD, chair of the Department of Physiology, and Earl Sutherland, MD, who was awarded the Nobel Prize in Medicine or Physiology in 1971 for his discoveries of cyclic AMP and the hormonal regulation of metabolism.

Dr. Exton “had a great scientific career, and, among other contributions, will be remembered for his pioneering discoveries of the roles of cyclic AMP and calcium in liver metabolism signaling,” said longtime colleague Jackie Corbin, PhD, who also arrived at Vanderbilt in 1963 for graduate studies.

“He played a big role in establishing Vanderbilt as an excellent scientific center during those years,” said Corbin, professor of Molecular Physiology and Biophysics, emeritus.

Alan Cherrington, PhD, professor of Molecular Physiology & Biophysics and Medicine, and the Jacquelyn A. Turner and Dr. Dorothy J. Turner Professor of Diabetes Research at Vanderbilt, arrived in Dr. Exton’s lab in 1973 to begin postdoctoral studies.

“His work with Rollo Park on the regulation of gluconeogenesis (glucose production) at that time was world class and gave direction to the field,” Cherrington said. “He then went on to clarify hormone-driven intracellular signaling in the liver. His contributions over the years were seminal.”

Over his career, Dr. Exton published more than 360 scientific articles, including several with over 1,000 citations each, and gave more than 340 seminars and presentations at scientific meetings throughout the world.

He received many honors, including two awards from the American Diabetes Association, the Earl Sutherland Award and Stanley Cohen Award from Vanderbilt, and a Doctor Honoris Causa from the Autonomous University of Barcelona.

Dr. Exton was a fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, an inaugural fellow of the American Physiological Society, and an investigator of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, a position he held for 36 years. In 2001, he was elected to the National Academy of Sciences.

He was an associate editor of the American Journal of Physiology and The Journal of Biological Chemistry.

At Vanderbilt, Dr. Exton served as the director of the Medical Scientist Training Program, and he was a member of the medical school admissions committee. A gifted lecturer in the medical school physiology course, he trained numerous postdoctoral fellows and students who went on to successful independent careers.

“John Exton will be remembered as a brilliant researcher and respected teacher,” said Roger Colbran, PhD, professor and vice chair of the Department of Molecular Physiology and Biophysics, and holder of a Louise B. McGavock Chair. “Colleagues will also remember him as a raconteur with a keen sense of humor.”

“I called him the ‘King of Puns,’” Corbin said. “He and his wonderful wife, Janet, hosted many parties at their home. Costume parties were their specialty.”

In addition to his wife of 65 years, Dr. Exton is survived by his sons Richard (Maralie), Peter, and Stephen, and grandchildren Richard Jr., Lyndon, Emma, and Leighton Belmont.

Memorials may be made to the John H. Exton Memorial Fund, c/o Department of Molecular Physiology & Biophysics, 702 Light Hall, Vanderbilt University, Nashville, TN 37232-0615, or to St. George’s Episcopal Church, 4715 Harding Road, Nashville, TN 37205.

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