In Memoriam: H. Vasken Aposhian

This in memoriam was prepared by A. Jay Gandolfi, PhD, and I. Glenn Sipes, PhD, ATS. For more information, please refer to Dr. Aposhia’s obituary.

Dr. H. Vasken Aposhian was born on January 28, 1926. His parents were survivors of the Armenian Genocide, losing most of their family members. During World War II, he served in the Navy and was stationed at Midway. He received his BS in chemistry from Brown University (1948), where he met and then married his beloved Mary (Zaidan) Aposhian. Vas obtained his PhD in chemistry from the University of Rochester (1953), followed by a postdoctoral fellowship with Nobel Laureate Dr. Arthur Kornberg at Stanford University. He progressed through the academic ranks with appointments at Vanderbilt University, Tufts University, and the University of Maryland. He was appointed Chair of the Department of Cell and Developmental Biology at the University of Arizona from 1975 to 1979 and remained as Professor until his retirement in 2010.

Vas was a strong advocate for the nascent Toxicology Program being developed at the University of Arizona. His support helped the program become established and eventually be awarded National Institutes of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS)–sponsored Training Grant, Toxicology Center, and Superfund Programs. Over the years, he taught microbiology, cell biology, molecular biology, biochemistry, pharmacology, and toxicology. He mentored numerous graduate students and supervised their thesis and dissertation research projects. He was a dedicated mentor not only to his students, but also to junior faculty and his collaborators.  

Dr. Aposhian was one of the world’s leading authorities on the toxicology of heavy metals, in particular arsenic and mercury. This has included the enzymology of arsenic biotransformation; the study of human populations in Chile, Inner Mongolia, Romania, Mexico, and rural Southwest China as to their body burden of arsenic or mercury. He was best known for his pioneering work on Succimer and Unithiol in the treatment of arsenic, mercury, lead, and other heavy metals. The results of his studies led to US Food and Drug Administration approval of succimer in childhood lead poisoning. He, his wife Mary (a chemist), and various graduate students traveled the world doing toxicology research on mercury, lead, and arsenic. Much of Vas’s research was supported by the NIEHS-sponsored Superfund Program at the University of Arizona.

Vas retired from the University of Arizona as Professor Emeritus but remained active in his field for many years, writing articles, speaking at conferences, serving as a consultant, and testifying as an expert witness in court cases. Throughout his career, he received numerous scientific awards.

Vas displayed a tremendous zest for life. He was an avid reader, especially of military history, the New York Times, and spy novels. He was a connoisseur of ice cream and other sweets. He loved musicals, particularly South Pacific.

In his later years, Vas moved to Massachusetts, where he enjoyed living in the seaside communities of Gloucester and Rockport. Vas passed away on September 6, 2019.

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