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Dare to Be 100: Gene Yates Is Dead

01/27/2015 10:14am ET | Updated March 29, 2015
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Dr. F. Eugene Yates died at his home in Los Angeles on Jan. 20 at age 87. He was an emeritus professor of medicine and medical Engineering at UCLA. He may have been my best science friend, certainly the smartest. His death was ultimately the result of having fallen off his exercise bike two months earlier, resulting in a fracture of his cervical vertebra. He never regained vitality after this insult. I rage at the consequent dimming of the light that his luminous brain has shown me for the last 23 years.

I first met Gene in 1993. I had submitted an article to the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society. Dr. David Solomon also of UCLA was then the fine editor of JAGS. He was having a difficult time finding appropriate reviewers for my paper because its topic, "the physics of frailty," was fundamentally alien to much of the standard medical paradigm.

But he eventually recruited Gene. Together they not only published my paper, but Gene wrote a very laudatory accompanying editorial, "On Frailty: When Being No Longer Implies Becoming." (1) In it he observed that we, together, were suggesting a model for a new strategic physical biology in which the creative effect of energy flow on matter is paramount, a revolutionary concept, and foreign to the standard model of disease medicine, in which the environment is generally regarded as a hostile encounter zone.

Gene was equally fluent in physiology, pharmacology, thermodynamics, and bioengineering. He advised NASA and NIH and Alza. Gene and I collaborated with Richard Strohman, biologist UC Berkeley, and Richard (Bud) Veech of the NIH in forming a tight little group devoted to the devaluation of geno-centrism as the central strut of medicine and biology, and the insertion of the replacement paradigm of systems biology. We were bonded in our insurgency.

One of the high points of our effort was a three-day conference that was held in 2002 at the NIH entitled the Dynamic and Energetic Basis of Health and Aging. (2) Gene delivered the first paper. The international faculty delighted at the interchange. At its conclusion we joined in sending a summary recommendation to Elias Zerhouni who was then the head of the NIH, and encouraged the closure of the Gene Institute and the creation of a new Institute of Systems Biology. Zerhouni responded by placing Francis Collins in charge of the entire NIH.

More recently Gene was invited to be a major contributor to a meeting that Len Hayflick and I were convening in connection with the annual meeting of the Gerontologic Society in Washington in November 2014. Its theme was "The Second Law of Thermodynamics and Aging." Gene's injury precluded his attendance. I am attempting to rescue possible remarks that he might have delivered.

The only competition that Gene had in my pantheon of smart friends was Linus Pauling. Of interest, to me at least, was a common role that I tried to play in both of their lives. Linus was not satisfied with Schrodinger's classic treatise "What is life" preferring instead that life was a result of a congenial combination of the chemical bonds of the constituent elements.

Linus's focus of course was the chemical bond, and he felt that this was more appropriate nexus than Schrodinger's approach. I pursued my effort to him to publish his idea, but he repeatedly demurred by saying he did not know how to write such a book. However in my files I have a letter written to me just before he died that he had relented and was going to go ahead with a update of Schrödinger. We are impoverished by our failure to harvest such a fantasic revision.

Similarly, I was constantly at Gene to write a paper for the average doc making the case for energy flow in biology as a fundamental concept in health and medicine. Gene's literary production was considerable, but almost all his work appears in arcane journals and inaccessible monographs. I urged him repeatedly to write a Reader's Digest-level manuscript for JAMA or the New England Journal of Medicine detailing our nomination of the new paradigm of Health in place of the fixation on disease. We discussed such an outreach on dozens of occasions, a mission now un-fulfilled.

Gene's lasting contribution will be his crafting of the term "homeodynamics." The first time that I heard this new word I was startled. Such an obvious upgrade of the clearly inadequate, but standard word homeostasis that preoccupied medical attention since Walter Cannon in 1933 was brilliant. Stasis is alien to biology. Dynamics, energy flow is fundamental, and so Gene's term of homeodynamics is a unifying thematic.

Gene Yates is gone, but his ripples will lap at my life for the rest of my days. Thousands of others similarly are fortunate that Gene has passed our way.

References:
Yates, F.E. On Frailty: When Being No Longer Implies Becoming, JAGS; 1993, 41:1009-1010.
Bortz, WM., Yates,FE, Veech R, Strohman, R.
The Dynamic and Energetic Bases of Health and Aging NIH Bethesda Md.The Ellison Foundation 2002
http//www.ellisonfoundation.org/awrds.jsp?
program=gid&type=Conference&year=2002.