Mordecai P. Blaustein

Mordecai Blaustein

Mordecai Blaustein, a professor of physiology and medicine at the University of Maryland School of Medicine, grew up in Brooklyn, NY.  He received his first chemistry set at an early age and, as a result, became enamored with the idea of becoming a scientist (before he really knew what a scientist was).  As an undergraduate at Cornell University (B.A. with honors in zoology), he was introduced to the excitement of physiology and research by Howard Schneiderman, and to neurophysiology by William Van der Kloot.  During his medical student days at Washington University in St. Louis, Blaustein received NIH training funds to support a research project on the sodium pump (Na, K, ATPase) with Daniel Tosteson.

Following an internship at Boston City Hospital, Blaustein received a commission in the US Navy; he was fortunate to spend three years studying the effect of anesthetics on the electrophysiology of lobster ‘giant’ axons with David Goldman at the National Naval Medical Center, Bethesda, MD (rather than in Vietnam).  Then, as an NIH Special Fellow, Blaustein moved to Cambridge (and Plymouth), England, to work on squid axons with Alan Hodgkin.  On the suggestion of Peter Baker, Blaustein studied the ouabain-sensitive sodium (Na) pump in squid axons, and soon discovered a large, ouabain-resistant Na efflux that he then characterized as the manifestation of a novel transport mechanism, sodium/calcium exchange (NCX).  He recognized that this was the missing link that helped to explain why cardiotonic steroids like ouabain and digoxin, which inhibit Na pumps, are cardiotonic.

Carlton (Cuy) Hunt began to rejuvenate physiology at Washington University in 1968, and he invited Blaustein to return to St. Louis as an associate professor of physiology and biophysics.  Much of his research during the next dozen years was on the physiology of isolated presynaptic nerve terminals (‘synaptosomes’) from mammalian brain.  He and his trainees demonstrated that the synaptosomes resealed and were physiologically competent.  They maintained ion gradients, generated membrane potentials, released neurotransmitters, and recycled synaptic vesicle membranes. 

In 1971, Blaustein spent a mini-sabbatical in Harald Reuter’s Pharmacology Institute at the University of Berne (Reuter independently discovered NCX in mammalian heart in 1968).  They identified NCX in mammalian arteries.  This was a turning point in Blaustein’s career; it led him to postulate that Na pumps, NCX, and an hypothetical ouabain-like molecule (an endogenous Na pump inhibitor), might play a key role in the control of arterial tone and blood pressure.  The article describing that hypothesis was published in the American Journal of Physiology, Cell Physiology in 1977; it has been cited more than 1,250 times.

Blaustein moved to Baltimore in 1979, to take the chair of the department of physiology at the University of Maryland School of Medicine and rejuvenate that department.  Shortly thereafter, his postdoctoral fellow, John Hamlyn, took up the pursuit of the elusive endogenous ouabain-like compound.  It took Hamlyn and collaborators at the Upjohn Company a decade to purify this ‘holy spirit’, from several tons of human plasma, and to identify it as ‘ouabain’ itself (a most remarkable turn of events!).  Blaustein stepped down from the chair in 2003, but continues to be an active investigator whose focus is still on the mechanisms that link salt to hypertension.  He has been continuously funded by the NIH since 1969.

Research honors that Blaustein has received include the Pasarow Award for Cardiovascular Research, the Novartis Award for Hypertension Research (from the American Heart Association Council for High Blood Pressure Research), a Senior Distinguished U.S. Scientist Award from the Alexander von Humboldt Society, and the Research Lecturer of the Year Award from the University of Maryland, Baltimore.  He is an elected fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the Biophysical Society, and the American Heart Association.

A member of the APS since 1968, Blaustein has served the Society as a councilor and as chair of the Finance Committee.  He is a former member of the AJP Cell Physiol. editorial board, and is currently an associate editor of AJP Heart & Circ. Physiol.  Other past contributions to the profession include service as treasurer of FASEB and treasurer of the Biophysical Society, coordinating editor of Reviews of Physiology, Biochemistry & Pharmacology, councilor of the Society of General Physiologists, and president of the Association of Chairs of Departments of Physiology.