Aaron Lerner

Dr. Aaron Lerner, an internationally renowned scientist and founding chair of the Department of Dermatology at the Yale School of Medicine, died Feb. 3 from complications of Parkinson’s disease. He was 86.

Lerner guided dermatology at Yale from its inception in 1956 as a small section within the Department of Internal Medicine to its designation as a freestanding department in 1971. In his 30 years as chair of dermatology, Lerner developed a tightly knit group of clinical scholars and investigators, and was largely responsible for the department’s broad recognition as one of the world’s foremost intellectual centers of cutaneous biology and medicine.

The only dermatologist elected to the National Academy of Sciences, Lerner was widely regarded as the leading fundamental scientist in the specialty during the early stages of the modern era of biomedical research.

A native of Minneapolis, Lerner received his undergraduate, medical and doctoral degrees from the University of Minnesota. He interned at Staten Island Hospital and, while in the Army shortly after World War II, worked at the Army Chemical Center at Edgewood Arsenal. Before coming to Yale, he was a faculty member at the universities of Michigan and Oregon.

As a medical student, Lerner isolated the first monoclonal antibody, coining the terms cryoglobulin, for a protein that precipitates in blood at low temperature, and cryoglobulinemia, for the condition. This work became his Ph.D. thesis under C.J. Watson. He received his M.D. and Ph.D. degrees in 1945 after only four years.

He led a group that demonstrated the central role of tyrosinase in melanin synthesis, and performed critical experiments demonstrating that 8-methoxy-psoralen, a DNA-cross linking agent that is made active by long-wave ultraviolet energy, can be safely administered to humans, paving the way for its wide use in the treatment of psoriases, vitiligo and cutaneous lymphoma. In 1958, he discovered melatonin, a hormone secreted by the pineal gland. He also sequenced adrenalcorticotropic hormone (ACTH) and isolated and sequenced melanocyte-stimulating hormone (MSH).

“Aaron was the preeminent clinical expert in melanocytic diseases ranging from depigmenting and hyperpigmenting disorders to malignant diseases, all stemming from aberrant melanocyte behavior,” says Dr. Richard Edelson, director of the Yale Cancer Center and former chair of dermatology. “As such, he was a high impact pioneer ‘translational scientist,’ tightly coupling scientific insights with clinical advances, literally decades before the term was introduced.”

Lerner was a member of the Institute of Medicine and of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. He received the prestigious Annenberg Prize and was the first recipient of the Dermatology Foundation’s Discovery Award for his extraordinary seminal scientific contributions. He took special pride in the number of Yale medical students who have achieved prominence in the field throughout the world. These include his sons, Ethan of Boston, and Michael of San Diego, as well as several Yale faculty members.

In addition to sons Ethan and Michael, Lerner is survived by his wife, Mildred; two other sons, Peter of Bethany, and Seth of New Haven; a brother, Harry, of Minneapolis; a sister, Miriam Satz, of Ann Arbor, Michigan; and nine grandchildren. His first wife, Marguerite, also a Yale dermatology faculty member, predeceased him.

A memorial service will be held March 21 at Dwight Chapel.

Reprinted with permission from the Yale Bulletin and Calendar.