Pioneering neuroscientist who founded UF’s McKnight Brain Institute passes away

Neuroscientist William G. “Bill” Luttge

Neuroscientist William G. “Bill” Luttge, 68, the founding executive director of the Evelyn F. and William L. McKnight Brain Institute of the University of Florida, died on Saturday, March 24, 2012, at Shands at UF medical center. His wife, sons and other family members were at his side.

He was diagnosed in January with multiple myeloma, a cancer of plasma cells in the bone marrow.

Luttge channeled the vast amount of brain research under way at the University of Florida in the 1980s and 1990s into a comprehensive program, resulting in a $60 million Brain Institute research building that was dedicated in 1998.

“Bill Luttge was always private and very modest, but his accomplishments are gigantic,” said Mark Gold, M.D., the Donald Dizney Eminent Scholar and chairman of the department of psychiatry in the College of Medicine. “He is one of the founders of modern neuroscience.”

Colleagues say Luttge was an early innovator of a neuroscience movement that flowered in the late 1990s, employing interdisciplinary teams to understand complex human behavior and intractable diseases. In 1998, UF’s Brain Institute was among the first of a fresh, elite crop of institutes and centers sprouting around the country at places such as Harvard University and the University of California.

“The university has lost one of its great heroes,” said Michael L. Good, M.D., dean of the College of Medicine. “Dr. Luttge challenged diseases of the brain by creating the McKnight Brain Institute and filling it with some of the nation’s best scientists. He significantly shaped the work of so many faculty at UF and throughout the nation and world, in my case, helping our team add neurological models to the human patient simulator program. Bill Luttge’s impact on science was significant and far-reaching.”

Tetsuo Ashizawa, M.D., the current executive director of the McKnight Brain Institute, was in Tokyo for a scientific conference when he heard the news of Luttge’s death.

“This is a huge loss for the McKnight Brain Institute and the university,” Ashizawa said. “I had a chance to visit with him at his home one month ago. He was upbeat and eager to contribute to MBI-related activities despite his illness. Dr. Luttge has left a great imprint on the history of neuroscience research as the founding executive director of the Evelyn F. and William L. McKnight Brain Institute, and the MBI will remember him and his great contributions.”

Luttge joined UF in 1971 as an assistant professor of neuroscience in the College of Medicine after earning his Ph.D. in biological sciences at the University of California, Irvine. The neuroscience department at the College of Medicine was one of the first of its kind in the country, and Luttge quickly became its leader, researching the molecular and behavioral actions of steroids in the brain.

In the early 1990s, Luttge worked closely with Albert Rhoton, M.D., then chairman of the department of neurosurgery, and Richard Smith, M.D., a founding faculty member of the College of Medicine, to build support for a campuswide initiative to harness UF’s research, clinical care and educational skills to solve brain disorders. In December 1991, while chairman of the neuroscience department, Luttge came upon a small Department of Defense advertisement in an obscure newsletter, the Commerce Business Daily. It called for proposals to build a major national brain and spinal cord research center.

In the following days Luttge, with the help of his wife Michaelyn, pieced together descriptions of the many but disparate elements of brain research at UF into a comprehensive proposal. He included disciplines whose connections to brain research had been overlooked, Gold said.

“Bill always thought way ahead of the curve,” Gold said. “While writing the grant he told me he thought drug and alcohol abuse prevention should be part of the Brain Institute application. I asked him why, and he said drugs and alcohol are the main causes of brain and spinal cord trauma and until we have something better, the best treatment is prevention. That was a pioneering notion. But his energy and spirit are what made it possible for other scientists to follow him, because many of them thought he was on a Sisyphean task, pushing an immense boulder up a hill that was certainly going to roll back down before it reached the top.”

In an interview in 2003, then-Vice President for Health Affairs Douglas Barrett, M.D., recalled Easter Sunday, April 19, 1992. Barrett had come to the health center to see a patient. He found Bill and Michaelyn Luttge walking with stacks of papers under their arms.

“They had been working all week and weekend, day and night, to get this grant put together,” Barrett said. “Later, I got to thinking about that — his almost singlehanded, remarkable dedication to pull all the pieces together. It’s true there were lots of patchwork pieces of the quilt, but Bill had the dream of sewing it all together and making it a coherent picture, so that when you stood back, you saw a beautiful tapestry. No one but Bill could have done that because of his view of the neurosciences at the University of Florida. It was a remarkable personal effort and that late Sunday evening, when you couldn’t have found anybody else here, will always stand out in my mind as a personal snapshot of Bill’s dedication to the dream.”

The proposal to the Department of Defense was dated April 20, 1992 — the morning after Barrett’s hallway encounter with the Luttges. It contained a $26 million commitment from UF and was signed by Luttge, David Challoner, M.D., vice president for health affairs; Allen Neims, M.D., Ph.D., dean of the College of Medicine; Paul Metts, CPA, CEO of Shands at UF; and UF President John Lombardi, Ph.D.

On June 11, 1992, UF won the $18 million grant, ahead of several prestigious universities and neuroscience research centers. On Oct. 22, 1998, with the help of additional grants, UF opened the doors of its $60 million Brain Institute. Later, in 2000, the McKnight Brain Research Foundation bestowed the institute with a private donation that created a $30 million endowment, devoted to research that explores the mechanisms of memory loss with aging and to finding solutions to cognitive aging.

Today, the MBI has more than 300 affiliated faculty working to end the ravages of brain diseases and age-related memory loss.

In addition to assembling an armada of clinicians and scientists, Luttge believed a comprehensive institute should provide high-quality resources. With that in mind, he added specialized facilities in addition to traditional laboratories in the plans for the Brain Institute.

A prime example is the Advanced Magnetic Resonance Imaging and Spectroscopy research facility, a nuclear magnetic resonance imaging lab at the MBI. It features some of the most powerful scanning systems in the world, including a machine that generates a magnetic field more than 200,000 times stronger than the Earth’s.

Researchers have used these magnets to unravel the secrets of the smallest cells, to see how human brains respond to food or other stimulation, and even to diagnose tumors in wild animals.

“We think of Dr. Luttge as a neuroscientist who was fascinated by novel technologies,” said Lucia Notterpek, Ph.D., chairwoman of the department of neuroscience. “He wanted cutting-edge equipment and people who were very skilled. But he was very hands-on in all aspects of our mission, including education, and enjoyed teaching students in neuroanatomy classes. It was visionary for him to house the clinicians who are interested in understanding and curing neurological problems with basic scientists, trainees and students. He saw the future of translational research — the only way we can meet the challenges ahead is when we are part of collaborative teams.”

In a 2003 interview, Luttge said it remained a source of amazement that UF gave him — “just a regular faculty member” — the opportunity to create the Brain Institute.

“Knowing that they trusted me, I didn’t want to do anything other than the best possible job,” Luttge said. 

Luttge served as chairman of the department of neuroscience for nearly 20 years, and was senior associate dean for research and basic science for the College of Medicine and chairman of the scientific advisory committee for the UF General Clinical Research Center for two years. He received the College of Medicine’s Lifetime Achievement Award in 2003 and was named an Honorary Alumnus.

In 2004, after 33 years of service to UF, Luttge retired a professor emeritus of neuroscience and pursued his passion for the outdoors. Once an accomplished runner who could finish a marathon in under two-and-a-half hours, he began hiking the Continental Divide Trail, the Florida Trail, the Tuscarora Trail and the Pacific Crest Trail.

He climbed Mount Rainier for the second time and celebrated his 60th birthday in 2004 on the Appalachian Trail. His trail name was “Fireball” and Michaelyn, nicknamed “Hot Chocolate,” hauled a trailer, meeting up with her husband at obscure trail heads for restock and supply. In 2008, they stored the truck and trailer and together backpacked the Superior Hiking Trail in Minnesota.

In addition to his wife of 47 years, Michaelyn Chacon Luttge, of Cross Creek, he is survived by two sons, William R. Luttge, of Gainesville, and Benjamin Luttge, of Cleveland; three grandchildren, one older sister and two younger brothers.

In a message Monday, Michaelyn Luttge wrote, “In the 10 weeks since his diagnosis with multiple myeloma, a cancer of plasma cells that causes bone lesions, Dr. Luttge attended seminars, met with former UF colleagues and new faculty, took the opportunity to tell his sons how proud he was of them, and with every available moment reminisced with his wife over a life well spent.”

In lieu of flowers, memorial donations may be made to The UF Foundation, McKnight Brain Institute, P.O. Box 100243, Gainesville, FL 32610. Please place “Dr. Luttge” on the memo line. Call (352) 273-5882 for more information.