Celebration of Life Honoring Dr. Eckhard Podack Draws Hundreds of Colleagues, Family and Friends
“The greatest happiness for the thinking man is to have fathomed the fathomable; and to quietly revere the unfathomable.”
These words, written by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe in Sprüche in Prose in 1819, opened the program for the recent celebration of life for Eckhard R. Podack, M.D., Ph.D., a renowned researcher at Sylvester Comprehensive Cancer Center, the Sylvester Distinguished Professor of Medicine and Chairman of the Department of Microbiology and Immunology at the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine, who passed away on October 8. The quote provided the simplest of tributes to a complex man who, as a world-class medical researcher, devoted his life to making a series of groundbreaking scientific discoveries that will ultimately extend or save the lives of many others.
“Eckhard made remarkable contributions,” said Pascal J. Goldschmidt, M.D., Senior Vice President for Medical Affairs and Dean of the Miller School of Medicine and CEO of UHealth, who hosted the program and was its first speaker. “He was a renowned immunologist in cancer research, and the transformative impact of his work will be felt for generations to come. There is no more important legacy than transforming the lives of patients with serious illnesses.”
Goldschmidt also announced the establishment of two new chairs in the Department of Microbiology and Immunology, one named for Podack and one for his wife, Kristin, who worked for many years as part of his research team.
Perhaps the most significant discoveries of Podack’s career were Perforin-1 and, more recently, Perforin-2 — antibacterial proteins that help the body’s immune system defend against infectious disease. One of Podack’s last published studies, “Perforin-2 is essential for intracellular defense of parenchymal cells and phagocytes against pathogenic bacteria,” appeared online September 24 in the eLife Sciences Journal.
But Podack was much more than a brilliant scientist, said the 11 additional colleagues, family members and friends who spoke at the celebration, held November 21 in the Grand Ballroom of the Donna E. Shalala Student Center.
They described a lover of nature who collected butterflies, camped out under the stars in the Everglades and swam with crocodiles in Africa; an adventurer who drove fast and aggressively, in cars and on motorcycles, as though every road was his personal autobahn; a passionate supporter of the arts, especially classical music and opera, who would fly halfway around the world to hear an admired artist perform; and, above all, a family man whose love for his wife and daughters was as unbounded as was his intellect.
Their words drew tears, laughter and occasional applause from the celebration’s nearly 300 attendees, who had traveled to the University’s Coral Gables campus from as far away as Japan.
W. Jarrard Goodwin, M.D., Chief Medical Officer at Sylvester Comprehensive Cancer Center, noted that Podack had been a physician before becoming a scientist.
“His first love was research, but family loyalties directed him into a significant period of general medical practice,” said Goodwin. “I believe that this experience added depth and insight to his research. Perhaps this is why he was a bench-to-bedside translational researcher long before that term came into vogue. His own work constantly set the standard for highly collaborative research aimed at reducing the burden of cancer for the patients we treat.”
As an additional remembrance of his contributions, Goodwin announced that Stephen D. Nimer, M.D., Director of Sylvester, was establishing an annual distinguished lectureship in Podack’s name.
Laurence B. Gardner, M.D., Executive Dean for Education and Policy, who has lived across the street from the Podack family for 21 years, spoke as a colleague who was also a friend and neighbor. Gardner told the story of a vintage Mercedes Podack had bought that was in a state of constant restoration, often for years at a time, with many of the parts kept indoors.
“What would test a marriage more than negotiating where the parts of a car should be stored inside your house?” he asked to roars of laughter from the audience. But that, said Gardner, exemplified the breadth of Podack’s interests.
“Eckhard was a caring man with a huge heart and an unfettered sense of adventure,” he said. “He was a heroic man who gave his best to the last.”
Robert B. Levy, Ph.D., professor of microbiology and immunology, spoke on behalf of the entire department.
“Eckhard was extremely gifted,” he said. Still, “he never used his intellectual gifts to bully or belittle, but to guide one toward a well-thought-out and appropriate decision. He tried in his own way to do what is characteristically expected of a leader and make everyone around him better. I believe each of us can recall having talks with Eckhard, which almost always enhanced our thinking and elevated our mood, and after which the day was better because the obstacle now appeared less so.”
Similar sentiments were expressed by one of Podack’s long-time research collaborators, Michail Sitkovsky, Ph.D., Presidential Scholar at the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute in Boston. He spoke of Podack as a man of intellectual greatness tempered by humor whose many accomplishments were possible only because of his focus on his work. The two had recently published an article on the benefits of combining supplemental oxygenation with gp96, a protein used to fight a broad spectrum of diseases, including several types of cancer, HIV, hepatitis C virus and malaria.
“There are givers and takers in life,” said Sitkovsky. “We could have done so much more together, but Eckhard actually left an inheritance. When I learned from Natasa Strbo about her new data developed in collaboration with Eckhard, I realized that he had continued to be a giver to the end.”
A brief, unscheduled remark was made by Tomas A. Salerno, M.D., professor of surgery, Chief of the Division of Cardiothoracic Surgery, and Vice Chairman for Faculty Development and Mentoring in the Department of Surgery. Salerno is also Chair of the University of Miami Faculty Senate, and he broke the news from the podium that, in a unanimous vote, the body had voted to honor Podack in April 2016 with a Special Senate Award. Only 12 such awards have ever been given by UM, and never before has one been given posthumously.
Some of Podack’s laboratory discoveries translated into commercial ventures, and he launched several companies with business partners. The most recent was Heat Biologics, which develops immunotherapy treatments for a wide array of cancers and infectious diseases, and went public in 2013. Jeffrey Wolf, the company’s CEO, listed four characteristics that he said made Podack great.
“First, he was creative and unafraid of thinking about things in an unconventional manner,” said Wolf. “His ideas and insights seemed to emerge from nowhere and were truly years ahead of their time. Second, Eckhard was the most persistent scientist whom I ever met. When he learned English as a second language in his native Germany, the word they forgot to teach him was ‘no.’ Third, I had the pleasure of negotiating against him when we formed our companies. It was indeed a chess game in which Eckhard was always two moves ahead. Fourth, his heart is what made him truly great. His devotion to his family and to humanity were unyielding and really were what drove him to do great things.”
Taylor H. Schreiber, M.D., Ph.D., a Miller School of Medicine alumnus and currently Chief Scientific Officer at Heat Biologics, spoke from the perspective of a former student.
“Eckhard was one of those rare people who didn’t care about anything but the truth,” he said. “At our regular Monday morning lab meetings, he often said, ‘trust is good, proof is better.’ He was driven by a fundamental human curiosity to see the unseen, to tinker and to understand how the world works. He will live on in the continuation of his life’s work, and in those who will continue to carry the torch forward for him.”
Podack’s brother-in-law, Jonathan Nye, who married Kristin Podack’s twin sister Karin, shared a different perspective — that of a competitive sailboat racer who, with his crew, often stayed at the Podacks’ home during winter sailing competitions in Miami.
“As impressive as was their hospitality, what was equally impressive was Eckhard’s genuine respect for others,” said Nye. “The night before a race, Eckhard, over a bottle of red wine, with him smoking his pipe, would engage us well into the evening, always wanting to find out more about the individuals I was sailing with that weekend. What they did, whether they enjoyed what they did or not, and why or why not. One of Eckhard’s greatest gifts was his special way of making you feel worth listening to.”
Lucie Spieler, IT Development and Training Manager for the Florida Grand Opera, knew Podack through her friendship with Kristin.
“He took a sense of wonder and looked deep into a microscope,” she said. “He lived in a world of his own called Podackia, where anything could happen. That world, ruled by cause and effect, was his to explore.”
The most personal remembrances were delivered by Podack’s family. His daughter Verena spoke of him as a protective, comforting presence.
“When I was a little girl, I made a deal with my grandmother,” she said. “I told her that when she died she should make it rain, so I would know that she was up there. About a week after Papa left this world, I was walking with my dogs, and out of the blue the sky opened, and we were completely soaked in a warm, heavy downpour. I felt him in that rainstorm, and I’m sure it’s him up there, comforting me and orchestrating the most beautiful fall we’ve had in years.”
Podack’s other daughter, Eilika, spoke of the many lessons she learned from her father, even when she didn’t know she was being taught.
“I had the best birthday parties a child could ask for,” she said. “Every year, he prepared an extremely elaborate treasure hunt through the garden. One year, my friends and I had to solve a secret code he invented based on Egyptian hieroglyphics. Another required knowing the genus of different trees in our yard and the difference between monocots and dicots. By the time I was 11, they involved math problems, which some of my friends did not appreciate. I had so much fun, I never realized he was teaching me algebra.”
Kristin Podack recounted a few high points of 31 years with her husband.
“On my first day of work in New York, I needed to spin cells on the far side of the department, and Eckhard wanted to show me which centrifuge to use,” she said. “I took the test tube and went out the door to the left. He came with me and went to the right. He immediately stopped me and said, ‘Where are you going? Go this way, it’s 10 seconds faster.’ I thought to myself, ‘Oh, wow, I am in for a ride.’ I had no idea what sort of ride, but that first experience should have alerted me to the possibilities.
“My life with Eckhard, and because of Eckhard, was filled with beauty, wonder and exploration, fast driving, life on the edge, experiencing life to its fullest. I only had to keep up. Throughout our lives, there was the tradeoff between living on the edge and the richness of experience we gained from daring to take the risk. The daring and the calculation were all provided by Eckhard.
“Equipped only with a butterfly net, Eckhard drove us on a Honda motorcycle, over unpaved roads at high speed, from Hua Hin into no man’s land between Thailand and Myanmar,” she said. “At that moment, I thought about the lack of emergency rescue vehicles in that part of the world. Eckhard thought about how to get us through the waterfall. In the end, we shared the most exhilarating day, which was to change forever how I think about butterflies. Perhaps going forward, butterflies could be the symbol for the multitude of things Eckhard inspired.”
And so the images of a monarch butterfly, along with the words of Balinese writer Rabindranath Tagore — “The butterfly counts not months, but moments, and has time enough” — opened and closed an emotional montage of still photographs from Podack’s life assembled by Ali Habashi, Lecturer in the Department of Cinema and Interactive Media at the University of Miami School of Communication, that played silently to the live accompaniment of pianist Marina Radiushina.
The event was also enriched by vocal performances by three of South Florida’s leading opera talents: soprano Maria Antúnez, tenor Martin Nusspaumer and baritone Graham Fandrei.
Kristin Podack extends special thanks to Dean Goldschmidt for hosting the celebration of her husband’s life.