Jean Wilson, a pioneer in prostate disease research, died on June 13 at the age of 88, according to an announcement from the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center where he worked for more than 60 years before retiring as professor emeritus of internal medicine in 2011. No cause of death was given.
Wilson was born in northern Texas in 1932, where his love of science was fostered at an early age by his parents. “When I was 11, I was given a chemistry set for Christmas; chemistry sets in those days were both more fun and more dangerous than they are now,” Wilson recalled in a 2012 interview for The Journal of Clinical Investigation (JCI), where he served as editor-in-chief from 1972 to 1979. “My mother was afraid that I would set the house on fire, so my father built a small laboratory in our backyard where I had marvelous fun with my chemistry set.”
He graduated from the University of Texas (UT) at Austin with a degree in chemistry before moving on to UT Southwestern for medical school, which he completed in 1955. His postdoctoral work was completed under biochemist Sidney Udenfriend at the National Heart Institute. In 1960, Wilson became a faculty member at UT Southwestern.
Wilson’s research led to the discovery of 5-alpha-reductase, an enzyme involved in androgen metabolism. Primarily, it converts testosterone into dihydrotestosterone, another hormone he identified, which is critical for male sexual differentiation in many animals. Further work found that unfettered dihydrotestosterone production can lead to benign prostatic hyperplasia, a condition in which the prostate becomes so enlarged that it affects urination, but isn’t likely to lead to prostate cancer. These discoveries ultimately led to the development of the first available treatments for prostate disease. Wilson also developed methods to quantify cholesterol metabolism in the intestines and liver.
In addition to his professional accolades, which include membership in the Institute of Medicine within the National Academy of Sciences and the Eugene Fuller Triennial Prostate Award from the American Urological Association, UT Southwestern has renamed the Physician Scientist Training Program in Internal Medicine to the Jean Wilson Society.
In 2016, Wilson published The Memoir of A Fortunate Man, outlining not only his scientific research, but some of his more whimsical hobbies, including a passion for listening to opera, traveling, making ice cream, and watching birds.
“I think there are two types of people in the world: one is like Saul on the road to Damascus, who gets a specific call and then focuses their life on that specific call. Then there are other people who are not so focused who could be happy doing a lot of different things,” Wilson sums up in the JCI interview. “And I am in the latter category. I’m basically a happy person. I have a good time wherever I go, and I enjoy a lot of different things in life.”