Dr. John D. Baxter

Dr. John BaxterDr. John D. Baxter, M.D.
1940–2011
Written by the Baxter family

Dr. John D. Baxter, world renowned scientist and medical visionary, famous for cloning of the first human growth hormone gene, passed away on Wednesday, October 5, 2011, after an intensive two-month battle with a rare form of cancer. He was 71.

Dr. Baxter, former President of The Endocrine Society (2002-2003), previously worked as Professor of Medicine, Chief of Medical Endocrinology, and founder of the (University of California, San Francisco (UCSF) Diabetes Center. He was most recently the Chief of Endocrinology with Methodist Hospital in Houston, Texas.

Dr. Baxter made many fundamental medical discoveries and translated them into clinical therapies that had far-reaching implications for the fields of biotechnology and genetic engineering, and improved the health and welfare of patients worldwide. His laboratory was an early pioneer in molecular biology and recombinant DNA technology, and was first to clone many important genes, including those for rat, human, and bovine growth hormone. His group was first to show that growth hormone could be produced in bacteria; such ‘biosynthetic’ human growth hormone is now used worldwide to treat human growth disorders, and biosynthetic bovine growth hormone is used globally to improve milk production. This work became the prototype for all DNA-based human therapeutics and led to the technologies now used throughout the biotechnology industry and academic research laboratories.

As a scientific entrepreneur, Dr. Baxter would have few equals in the earliest days of the life sciences and biotechnology industries, founding several companies to facilitate moving his discoveries to patients. He was the founder and director of four successful biotech companies, the first of which, California Biotechnology Inc., founded in 1982, was ranked among the top 10 biotech companies (in terms of market capitalization) by the time it was acquired by Johnson & Johnson for $2.4 billion. Dr. Baxter led Cal Bio's efforts in developing peptides for heart failure treatment, as well as fibroblast growth factors for the treatment of wound healing. He also founded Karo-Bio, A.B. in 1987, raising $50 million in initial financing for the startup, the largest initial amount of seed funding for any biotech company in history. Karo-Bio continues Dr. Baxter's work and passion for compounds to help treat obesity, cholesterol disorders, and diabetes. In 1991, he founded SciClone Pharmaceuticals Inc., now a publicly traded company that has a drug in Phase III clinical trials in the United States.

Dr. Baxter, a native of Lexington, Kentucky, graduated from Lafayette High School in 1958 where he was a statewide track and field star. He graduated from the University of Kentucky in 1962, was later inducted into its Hall of Distinguished Alumni, and was awarded an honorary Doctorate degree from in 2003. A college track and field champion in long distance running, he was a standout varsity athlete and a lifelong Kentucky Wildcats fan who always claimed he “bled blue!” A graduate of Yale Medical School in 1966 with highest honors and then a research associate with the National Institutes of Health between 1968 and 1970, he went on to spend nearly three decades at UCSF teaching and conducting research, before taking over as one of the top researchers at Methodist Hospital.

Dr. Baxter's honors reflected his station as a giant among his scientific peers. The author of more than 245 peer-reviewed scientific articles, more than 109 books, book chapters and reviews, and a member of more than 10 scientific and medical societies, including the National Academy of Sciences, the Institute of Medicine, and The Endocrine Society, his legacy will continue to influence science and medicine through the over 100 investigators who worked with him throughout his career.

Moreover, Dr. Baxter received distinguished service awards for outstanding research and clinical dedication from the American Society of Clinical Investigation, The Endocrine Society, Yale University, and the Academy of Medicine, Engineering and Sciences of Texas. In 2001, he received an honorary Doctorate degree from the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm, Sweden, the University's highest honor, and in 2007 the Koch Award, The Endocrine Society's highest honor.

Yet, Dr. Baxter’s greatest passions he reserved for the love of his family: his wife the Hon. Lee D. Baxter, San Francisco Superior Court (ret.), his daughters Gillian Galligan and Leslie Baxter, son-in-law Oliver Galligan, and grandson Connor. A giant of a man in stature, life, and body, “Big John” was a teddy bear to those closest to him. A generous and loyal friend, he was loved around the world as much for his brilliant contributions to science and medicine as for his large heart, unique compassion, tireless spirit, and sense of humor. An avid fisherman, he could claim more than 80 sacred fly fishing spots around the world as his own, as well as several world records for fly fishing. It was in those quiet moments in nature, in the treasured moments with family, and in his most passionate moments of discovery in the lab, that he was happiest.

There are very few times in life we can say there will only ever be one person like him, one person who interrupts the world rather than having the world interrupt him. That person was John Baxter, and he will surely by missed by family, friends, and colleagues who knew and loved him, and the hundreds of thousands of others whose lives were impacted by his gifts here on earth.