March 2, 2001

Coniglio remembered for teaching, research

Coniglio remembered for teaching, research

John G. Coniglio, Ph.D., professor of Biochemistry, Emeritus, a Vanderbilt graduate and faculty member in the department of Biochemistry for more than 40 years, died suddenly Monday, Feb. 26, while working in the yard at his home on Lauderdale Road in Nashville. He was 81.

“John Coniglio personified the caring, intensely interested professor,” said Dr. John E. Chapman, Dean of the School of Medicine. “He in every way served his students, his colleagues, and others with his enthusiasm for science, his enthusiasm for discovery, and his enthusiasm for teaching and learning. He will be missed.”

Dr. Coniglio was born in 1919 in Tampa, Fla. He earned a B.S. from Furman University in Greenville, S.C., in 1940, and taught high school chemistry and physics in Kershaw, S.C., for one year before joining the war effort as a supervisor of government inspectors in the Ordnance Department at Childersburg, Ala., followed by work as a chemist at E.I. duPont’s Alabama Ordnance Works.

In 1942 his married his wife, Carmen.

In 1944 and 1945, he worked as a chemist and supervisor at the analytical laboratory of the Tennessee Eastman Corporation at Oak Ridge.

He first came to Vanderbilt in 1945 as a graduate student in Biochemistry. While still completing his dissertation, he was appointed instructor in Biochemistry, and, with the exception of two years spent on fellowship elsewhere, Dr. Coniglio was on the Vanderbilt faculty in some capacity for the remainder of his life. He was promoted to assistant professor in 1952, associate professor in 1955, achieved the rank of full professor in 1963, and retired from teaching and research with the rank of professor of Biochemistry, Emeritus in 1990.

In 1949, Dr. Coniglio was an Atomic Energy Commission postdoctoral fellow in the department of Biophysics at the Colorado University Medical School in Denver, and it was there that he first met another young researcher and teacher who would eventually end up at Vanderbilt, Stanley Cohen.

“I have known John for almost 50 years, since we were both students at the University of Colorado learning the then ‘high tech’ methods for studying metabolism using radioactive molecules,” Cohen, who won the Nobel Prize in Medicine or Physiology in 1986, remembered this week. “John not only made great use of these methods in his many studies of fatty acid metabolism, but he also was a very dedicated teacher and passed along his knowledge to very many graduate and medical students.

“He was a devoted teacher, and I will miss him both as a friend and a colleague.”

During the 1961-62 academic year, Dr. Coniglio held a U.S. Public Health Service Special Research Fellowship, affiliated with the Experimental Radiopathology Research Unit of the Medical Research Council at Hammersmith Hospital in London, and in 1984 he was a guest professor at Justue-Liebig University in Giessen, West Germany.

During his years at Vanderbilt, Dr. Coniglio’s main research interest was in lipid chemistry and metabolism, and the interface of nutritional biochemistry and reproductive biology. His leadership in the field of lipid research led to his appointment in 1969 as the associate editor of the journal Lipids.

Dr. Coniglio brought a quiet passion to the work of instructing generations of future physicians on the biochemical basis of biology, and it is perhaps in his role as a teacher that he is best remembered. His tenure as director of the medical student biochemistry course spanned four decades, beginning in the 1950s.

“John Coniglio deftly guided the biochemistry course into the modern era,” said Neil Osheroff, Ph.D., professor of Biochemistry, who now directs the course. “When he took over as course director, I was in preschool. When I took over the course from him, I was a tenured faculty member.

“He was a gentle man and a wonderful colleague,” Osheroff said. “He cared very deeply about educating medical and graduate students. Dr. Coniglio taught with his heart and his head. The blueprint that he developed for teaching biochemistry forms a legacy that still influences the medical student biochemistry course more than a decade after his last lectures.”

Dr. Coniglio also taught medical school and graduate school courses in lipid chemistry and metabolism and in radioisotope methodology. The annual John G. Coniglio Prize in Biochemistry is awarded to the medical student who has most distinguished himself or herself in Biochemistry.

In addition to having a distinguished award named in his honor, Dr. Coniglio was given many honors in his life, including the Thomas Jefferson Award from Vanderbilt in 1978, and the Furman University Distinguished Alumni Award in 1980. He also served as acting chair of Biochemistry in 1972 and 1973, and served on the University Senate, the Graduate Faculty Council, and the Admissions Committee of the School of Medicine.

Dr. Coniglio is survived by his wife Carmen; sons John William and his wife Linda; Robert and his wife Joanne; and David and his wife Lara; and grandchildren Andrew, Matthew, Ashley, Heather, and Cara.

A memorial service in his honor was held at Benton Chapel Thursday. At the family’s request, donations in Dr. Coniglio’s memory should be made to the Department of Biochemistry, 607 Light Hall, Nashville, TN 37232, to the attention of Marlene Jayne.