Julius Schachter, a leading microbiologist at the University of California, San Francisco, died December 20 from COVID-19. He was 84 years old.
“For decades he was the world’s authority on chlamydial diagnostics,” Tom Lietman, the director of the Francis I. Proctor Foundation for Research in Ophthalmology at UCSF and a longtime colleague of Schachter, says in a statement to colleagues shared with The Scientist. “He was also a legend in the sexually transmitted disease world, discovering that various chlamydia species could lead to systemic disease, and running the international chlamydial meetings.”
Trachoma, a chlamydia-related eye infection and one of the world’s leading causes of blindness until the 1990s, was the focus of much of Schachter’s research. In what Lietman calls a “seminal experiment,” Schachter found in 1999 that mass distribution of the oral antibiotic azithromycin was an effective way to treat the disease at a community-wide level in places where trachoma was out of control.
“Everyone in health care is taught that nonspecific antibiotic use is forbidden,” Lietman tells The New York Times. But in areas where trachoma was widespread, it was too difficult to test the entire community and quarantine those with the disease. “Julie’s leap was to consider treating the entire community, whether they were infected or not.”
Within a year of his 1999 study, the World Health Organization (WHO) had established guidelines for mass distributions of the antibiotic to trachoma-stricken countries, and Pfizer had committed to offering the drug free of charge to national programs, according to Lietman’s statement. Nearly 1 billion doses of the drug have been distributed for trachoma worldwide since the turn of the century. The target date for global elimination of trachoma as a public health problem is 2030, according to the WHO, in part thanks to Schachter’s research.
Schachter was born in the Bronx in 1936. He received his bachelor’s degree in chemistry from Columbia University in 1957, his master’s degree in physiology from Hunter College in 1960, and his doctorate in bacteriology from the University of California, Berkeley, in 1965. His first job was as an assistant research microbiologist at UCSF, where he remained for 55 years, later becoming a professor of laboratory medicine.
He served as the director of the WHO Collaborating Center for Reference and Research on Chlamydiae from 1978 to 2003 and chair of the Sexually Transmitted Diseases Diagnostic Initiative of the UNAIDS Programme from 1997 to 2001.
Schachter split his time between Germany and San Francisco and had flown to the Bay Area in November for Thanksgiving.
Schachter continued to work while hospitalized with COVID-19. Lietman recounts a conversation to the Times that they had on the day his friend was being moved to the intensive care unit.
“I’ve got to get out of here,” Schachter had told him. “I’ve got to finish these four manuscripts.”
He was married to his first wife Joyce Schachter from 1962 until her death in 1990. In 2018, Schachter married Elisabeth Scheer, a microbiologist at Roche Diagnostics, whom he’d been with since 1996. In addition to her and his daughter Sara Schachter, he is survived by a brother, Norbert, two sons, Marc Schachter and Alexander Scheer, and three grandsons.
Correction (January 13): The article previously misstated Elisabeth Scheer’s work affiliation and Julius Schachter’s residency. It also did not include Julius Schachter's first wife, Joyce Schachter. The Scientist regrets the errors.