HIVe Home
Posted: 7 Jun 2012
Tribute to Norman Letvin

In honor of Norman Letvin, Harvard Medical School, Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, we asked his colleagues and friends to share their memories of him as a great scientist, a friend and a mentor.  Below are heartfelt contributions from Dan Barouch, Gary Nabel, Wendy Yeh, José Esparza, Bill Snow and Mohammed Asmal.  We extend our condolences to his family, coworkers at his laboratory and around the world.

Introduction by Dan Barouch (Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center)After a valiant, several year struggle with pancreatic cancer, Norm Letvin passed away on 28 May 2012.  Norm was a great scientist, mentor, and friend to so many people.  His passing is a great loss to all who knew him and to the HIV research field.  A man of exceptional ability as a physician, scientist, mentor and musician, Norm was an internationally renowned leader in the worldwide effort to develop an HIV vaccine.  He and his many trainees and collaborators made seminal discoveries in virology, the biology of retroviruses, and the immunologic response to viral infection.  Norm's tremendous ability, his constant focus on the goals of the research and his eagerness to use his abilities to the fullest served as a source of constant inspiration to his colleagues and trainees.  Norm was also a gifted musician, who delighted in sharing concerts and plays with his family.  Finally, and most importantly, Norm was passionately devoted to his family.  For Norm, the most wonderful form of recreation was time spent with his wife and children, either at home, or on trips to Canada for Shakespeare and Shaw, or to London for concerts and plays. 

Gary Nabel (Vaccine Research Center):  Norm fought this disease bravely for almost five years.  Despite overwhelming medical challenges, he persevered and maintained his commitment to the search for an AIDS vaccine.

Norm’s accomplishments were exemplary in every sense.  Among them, he was instrumental in the establishment of the VRC, both in supporting its creation, selecting our scientific investigators, defining our mission and goals, and advancing the scientific agenda through advice and by experimentation.  His passing is a loss to us personally at the VRC.  Among our long-standing collaborations and friendships, his involvement stood out in the oversight of our non-human primate research program, where he worked closely with John Mascola and Srini Rao, and our T cell biology efforts, with Rick Koup, Bob Seder, and Mario Roederer.  His passing also represents a loss for our field.  We will miss him, think of him often, and hope to honor him by redoubling our commitment to finding an AIDS vaccine and holding to the standards of scholarship and commitments that he exemplified.


Wendy Wen-Li Yeh:  In addition to his great scientific accomplishments, Norm was known for his dedication to helping people grow scientifically, professionally, and personally.  He was a beloved teacher and mentor.  In 2009, he was recognized by Harvard Medical School and Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center with the William Silen Lifetime Achievement in Mentoring Award and Award for Excellence in Mentoring, respectively.  In the last 25 years, Norm has mentored over 100 (probably closer to 200) people at every level of training.  His mentees have gone on to develop extremely successful and visible careers and research programs worldwide.  If I had to describe Norm's style of mentorship, I would sum it up by saying that he was an “old-school” mentor.  As the Division Chief and the head of a very large research program, he was amazingly abreast of everyone’s work at a very detailed level.  For a long time, Norm made time to touch bases with everyone everyday by “rounding” in the lab.  His office door was always open, so that anyone could drop in at anytime to discuss science, career development, and personal matters.  Norm treated his division as family, no matter what their rank was.  I feel very fortunate to have been a mentee of a talented, remarkable and humane person who deeply cared about science, HIV vaccine development, people, and the world.  He will be dearly missed by many.

José Esparza (Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation):  I personally would say that he was one of the most committed HIV scientists I knew, always working  with intelligence and energy to address critical questions related to HIV vaccine development, with a sense of urgency.  He was a person of uncompromising dignity, honesty and decency.  The epitome of a scholar and a gentleman.  A role model for the new generation of scientists that the field needs.

Bill Snow (Global HIV Vaccine Enterprise): To a once naïve observer, Norm Letvin seemed unfailingly optimistic with an unimaginable energy for the mission.  He seemed to be everywhere all the time, so it’s almost impossible to imagine a world without him.  Norm was still championing new projects, just two weeks before his death. He was one of the most dedicated and amazing guys this field has seen.

Mohammed Asmal (Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center): From the four years that Norm Letvin was my mentor, I will remember most his boundless optimism, and seemingly limitless energy, which he generously shared with his colleagues, friends and family.   His door was always open, and behind it you would find a painstaking reviewer of manuscripts and high school essays alike (a process referred to as "Letvinization"), a source of unjaded encouragement after a disappointing grant review and a raconteur who could regale you with tales of youthful trips to Central Asia or midnight bus rides to watch the Ring cycle performed by the Met.   Norm always seemed to have time for his mentees, his colleagues and most of all his family-- I always suspected he never slept.   He loved his lab and his life with such ferocity, that he never ceded one moment to his illness, up until his very last days.  With Norm gone, I mourn less for him, than for the many graduate students, technicians, post-docs, senior scientists, musicians, friends and most of all family members who will no longer have the opportunity to learn from, have a paper reviewed by, listen to a concert performed by, or share a table in the cafeteria with Norman Letvin.


Norm will also be remembered for his important contributions to the HIV vaccine research field.  He has pioneered the use of nonhuman primates in HIV vaccine design, demonstrating that the biology of SHIV/SIV infection in macaques is a vital model for elucidating HIV infection and transmission in humans.  Norm defined the role of CD8+ cytotoxic T lymphocytes (CTL) in controlling HIV replication and his lab is currently working to develop vaccination strategies that protect against HIV by targeting CTL.  These strategies include using DNA and live vector vaccines that elicit CTL responses in nonhuman primates and humans.  He has also documented how lentiviruses are able to escape from CTL by mutation.  Noting the limitations of this strategy, Norm’s colleagues are attempting to design vaccines that account for this mutability.  Norm and his colleagues are also developing four new SHIV constructs that look very promising in macaques, showing persistent viremia for 100-250 days post-infection.