In Memoriam: Dr. David Seligson

Dr. David Seligson, professor emeritus of laboratory medicine, died on March 3 at the age of 95.

Seligson was the founding chair and chief of the Department of Laboratory Medicine at Yale School of Medicine and Yale-New Haven Hospital. The discipline of clinical chemistry and the broader field of laboratory medicine, as they are practiced today, are attributed in no small part to Seligson’s vision and creativity.

Born in Philadelphia in 1916, Seligson graduated from University of Maryland and received a D.Sc. from Johns Hopkins University and and an M.D. from the University of Utah. In 1953, he served as captain in the U.S. Army, chief of the Hepatic and Metabolic Disease Laboratory at Walter Reed Army Medical Center.

Recruited to Yale and Grace-New Haven Hospital in 1958 from the University of Pennsylvania as professor of internal medicine at the medical school and the first director of clinical laboratories at the hospital, Seligson subsequently established the infrastructure of the Department of Laboratory Medicine, creating divisions of clinical chemistry, microbiology, transfusion medicine (blood banking) and hematology - each with its own strong clinical, teaching and research programs.

Seligson established one of the nation’s first residency programs focused on laboratory medicine or clinical pathology, and also developed a teaching curriculum in laboratory medicine for medical students. In so doing, he created a model for the modern practice of laboratory medicine in an academic environment, and his trainees spread throughout the country as leaders in the field. Laboratory medicine achieved autonomous section status at Yale under his leadership in 1965 and became a full-fledged department in 1971.

He went on to found the major academic society in the discipline in 1966, the Academy of Clinical Laboratory Physicians and Scientists, along with Jon Straumfjord (University of Alabama Birmingham), George Z. Williams (National Institutes of Health), Ernest Cotlove (NIH), Ellis Benson (University of Minnesota), Gerald Evans (University of Minnesota) and Paul Strandjord (University of Washington).

Recognizing the growing need for clinical laboratory data in the modern practice of medicine, Seligson pioneered the use of automation in the clinical laboratory. The “Seligson Pipette,” which enabled early automation at Yale, was (in modified form) incorporated into many modern instruments used in clinical laboratories. In the 1960s, virtually all automated instruments were based upon what was called “continuous flow” technology, in which one sample followed another through a continuous plastic tube - each sample separated from the next by a bubble. At the time, it was thought that this would be the state of the art forever. Challenging this approach, Seligson designed, built and validated “discrete sample handling” instruments wherein each sample was treated independently, which allowed better choice of methods and greater efficiency. Today continuous flow has essentially disappeared and virtually all modern automated clinical laboratory instruments are based upon discrete sample handling technology.

Seligson was one of the early visionaries who recognized the potential for computers in the clinical laboratory. One of the first applications of a digital computer in the clinical laboratory occurred in Seligson’s department at Yale, and shortly thereafter data were being transmitted directly from the laboratory computer to data stations on the patient wards. Now, such laboratory information systems represent the standard of care.

He was also among the first to highlight the clinical importance of test specificity and accuracy, as compared to simple reproducibility. One of his favorite slides was one that showed almost perfectly reproducible results for 10 successive measurements of blood sugar obtained with what was then the most widely used and popular analytical instrument. However, he would note, the answer was wrong; the assay was not accurate. Throughout his career Seligson insisted that only assays capable of producing absolutely accurate results were suitable for patient care and acceptable for use in the Yale laboratory.

With his colleague Fred Zettner, Seligson was also the first to bring atomic absorption spectrophotometry into the clinical arena, opening the way to understanding the metabolic role of calcium in normal physiology and disease.

Seligson retired as chair of the Department of Laboratory Medicine in 1984, becoming emeritus professor. But he did not retire from his lifelong work in the discipline. He also continued his great passion for sailing. Seligson pursued the “science” of sailing with the same intensity and striving for perfection that characterized his professional life. He won over 100 trophies and as recently as last summer, at the age of 93, he won two sailing races in Long Island Sound on his boat, Leda.

His wife, Harriet - who, as a chemist in the clinical laboratories was known as someone who could make any procedure work, no matter how complicated, and who sailed and cruised with him all over the eastern United States - predeceased him in 1996.

Seligson is survived by his three children: Judith Seligson (married to Allan Greenberg) of Alexandria, Virginia, and New York City and their daughter, Hannah; Ruth Epstein (married to David Epstein) of Chevy Chase, Maryland, and their children, Alex, Elizabeth, Marianne, and Katherine; and Daniel Seligson (married to Margaret Epstein) of Palo Alto, California, and their children Rachel, Matthew and Anna; and by his brother Sidney Seligson of Phoenix, Arizona.

His funeral took place on March 6 at the Joseph Slifka Center for Jewish Life at Yale. Memorial contributions may be made to Yale Hillel, c/o the Slifka Center, 80 Wall St., New Haven, CT 06511 and directed to the David and Harriet Seligson Fund.

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