Norman K. Hollenberg, M.D., Ph.D., of Brookline, a renowned leader in cardiovascular medicine and hypertension, passed away on January 15th, 2020, after a long illness. He spent his last days in the Brigham and Women’s Hospital, the institution that he loved and his academic home for 50 years. Dr. Hollenberg was Professor of Medicine and Radiology and Director of Research in Radiology at the Brigham and Women’s Hospital and Harvard Medical School in Boston. He leaves a remarkable lasting legacy in renal medicine and hypertension.
Dr. Hollenberg was born in Winnipeg, Manitoba, to Sonia and Irving Hollenberg. He was a member of one of the most illustrious medical families in Canada. Dr. Hollenberg earned his undergraduate and medical degrees at the University of Manitoba in Canada. His Ph.D. in Pharmacology was obtained under Professor Börje Uvnäs at the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm, Sweden and Professor Mark Nickerson at the University of Manitoba and McGill University in Canada. After a medical residency in Winnipeg he completed his clinical education in Medicine and Nephrology at the Peter Bent Brigham Hospital in Boston, under the tutelage of John Merrell, M.D., one of the founders of modern nephrology. These three men had an enormous influence on his approach to biology and medicine, his value system, and his dedication to academic pursuits.
From its beginning, Dr. Hollenberg’s career focused on the kidney. Over nearly 50 years of extensive and groundbreaking research solidified his position as one of the true giants in the regulation of the renal circulation in health and disease. He authored more than 600 publications, over half of which are original articles in the archived literature. His many accomplishments included documenting the factors (hormonal and environmental) that control the renal circulation, and describing how they translate into the body’s regulation and handling of sodium intake. He assessed how defects in this regulation lead to hypertension, kidney disease in diabetes and congestive heart failure. Much of his research was the product of decades of collaboration with Dr. Gordon Williams, also at the Brigham. Dr. Hollenberg shared the opinion that much of the productivity and fun in research came from that collaboration.
Dr. Hollenberg was a pioneer in the development of new agents to treat disease and reverse harmful adverse effects. He was the first person to administer an ACE inhibitor to an individual with congestive heart failure, when the prevailing wisdom was that this new drug would be fatal. The patient awoke and walked. As a consequence of his insights, Dr. Hollenberg’s research catalyzed the development of two important classes of drugs, ACE inhibitors and angiotensin receptor blockers. Today they are prescribed to tens of millions of patients for the treatment of hypertension, congestive heart failure and chronic kidney disease, particularly in diabetes mellitus.
Most recently Dr. Hollenberg’s research interests focused on the vascular effects of flavonoid-rich cocoa, a subject that married medical anthropology and the important arena of vascular responsiveness. Based on Dr. Hollenberg’s seminal research, a large clinical trial is underway to determine whether flavanols that are found in chocolate may confer health benefits, including lowering blood pressure and lowering the risk for cardiovascular disease.
In his role as Director of Research in the Department of Radiology, Dr. Hollenberg pursued interests in collateral arterial vessel growth and reactivity, prior probability as a determinant of diagnostic strategy, and the implications of genetics for the diagnostic process.
Beyond research, Dr. Hollenberg had a special interest in medical education and teaching. Over the decades, he mentored countless students and fellows, many of whom became professors and leaders in their communities around the world. He served as one of four Associate Editors at the New England Journal of Medicine for seventeen years, and spent an additional six years on the journal’s Editorial Board. He also served on the editorial boards of a dozen journals. He was Editor of the Atlas of Hypertension and Editor-In-Chief of Current Hypertension Reports.
Among the awards and honors he received, Dr. Hollenberg valued especially the Royal College of Physicians Gold Medal and Prize, and the Medical Writers Association of the American Medal and Prize for best medical book of the year, “Heart Facts,” co-authored with his daughter.
The world of medicine, and the nephrology and hypertension communities in particular, have lost one of its giants. Norman Hollenberg was truly one of the great leaders in renal medicine, serving as a beloved and irreplaceable mentor to countless students. He was witty and exceptionally eloquent, a consummate storyteller whose door was always open in welcome. Perhaps most important, the world has lost a kind, caring and gentle person and a true gentleman.
Dr. Michael Weber, a colleague, summarized well: “His wisdom was not just from books and learning, but from the heart, a profound understanding of the essence of life and how it can only be understood at an emotional level deep within us. He was a giant in his field of science and his wisdom and deep warmth, his exceptional ability to find deeper human meaning beyond the obvious, are legacies that will be treasured by many.”
Norman Hollenberg is survived by his daughter Ilana Hollenberg of Northborough, MA, his son, David Hollenberg of Eugene, Oregon and his beloved and loving wife of 35 years, Deborah Hollenberg, who stayed close by his side, caring for him with all her love and strength until he left us.
He was laid to rest in Newton Cemetery on Friday, January 24th surrounded by family, close colleagues, and friends on a day when the air was as gentle as he.
There will be a memorial service at Temple Israel in Boston, MA (parking on the Riverway) on March 22nd at 1:30 pm.
In lieu of flowers, the family hopes to establish an endowed lectureship in Norman’s name and asks that donations be made to Brigham and Women’s Hospital to support the Department of Radiology. Memorial gifts can be made online at www.bwhgiving.org/hollenberg or checks can be made payable to Brigham and Women’s Hospital with “in memory of Norman K. Hollenberg, MD, PhD” in the memo line and sent to: Brigham and Women’s Hospital, Development Office, 116 Huntington Ave., 3rd floor, Boston, MA 02116.