In Memoriam: Galasso, George J.

In Memoriam: Galasso, George J.


Dr. George J. Galasso of Silver Spring, Md., passed away on Nov. 5, 2021. He was a long-time member of ASM and a fellow of the American Academy of Microbiology. Dr. Galasso was a leader in antiviral research whose efforts led to the successful treatment of many viral infectious diseases and cancer. He retired in 1996 as the Associate Director of Extramural Programs of the National Institutes of Health (NIH) but continued his efforts in biomedical research as a consultant. During his long and rewarding career, he published nearly 100 articles and reviews.

Born in New York City to Italian immigrant parents, Dr. Galasso graduated from Cardinal Hayes High School and Manhattan College, served in the Army as a medical technician, and then earned a Ph.D. in Microbiology from the University of North Carolina (UNC) in 1960. Following a post-doctoral fellowship, he became Research Assistant Professor at the UNC Medical School.

In 1964, he became Associate Professor of Microbiology in the University of Virginia Medical School where he did research and taught Virology. In 1968, he was accepted into the Grants Associates Program of the NIH, a highly selective training program for Health Science Administrators. In 1969, he was asked to initiate an Antiviral Research Program for the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases. This was during a period of skepticism about the efficacy of antiviral agents to combat viral diseases. The initial goal was to determine whether interferon had a role in treating disease and to determine whether chemical agents could be used to treat viral diseases. Due to his efforts with other agents, adenine arabinoside was shown effective against herpes encephalitis, the first time an antiviral agent was successfully used to treat an ongoing serious viral disease. This finding showed that antiviral agents could indeed prove effective and paved the way for other antiviral agents. Dr. Galasso was also a leader in interferon clinical trials and was instrumental in showing the efficacy of interferon in hepatitis, and this led to its use against cancer.

Dr. Galasso’s research accomplishments have been internationally recognized. He served on the US-USSR science exchange program and headed delegations to the then USSR in the 1970s. He was an invited speaker at several international meetings and served as a western representative at meetings in Eastern Europe during the Iron Curtain period. He was made an honorary faculty member of the Hubei Medical School, Wuhan, Peoples Republic of China where he participated in a virology course for representatives of all the provinces of China.

In 1973, Dr. Galasso became Chief of the Infectious Diseases Branch at NIH with responsibility for development of vaccines and antivirals to combat infectious diseases. His efforts in vaccine development led to the Zoster vaccine. In 1983 he became Associate Director for Extramural Programs of the NIH, with responsibility for NIH policies involving grants and contracts. He developed the first set of Conflict of Interest Rules in conjunction with the other research agencies of the government. During his long and rewarding career, he authored nearly 100 scientific articles and reviews. He also served on the editorial board of several scientific journals and as Review Editor for Antiviral Research.

Dr. Galasso founded the International Society for Antiviral Research in 1985, served as its President in 1992-94, and was active in the Society until 2008. He was also instrumental in founding the International AIDS Society and he organized the Third International Conference on AIDS in Washington in 1983. Held during the highly charged era of AIDS activism, the conference drew in 7,000 attendees, well beyond the expected 3,000. Galasso was recognized for his successful organization of the meeting and crowds with the Assistant Secretary for Health’s Award for Exceptional Achievement.

Dr. Galasso had a passion for mentoring younger scientists. He took great delight in helping others succeed. At his retirement party, it was notable how many coworkers expressed their appreciation for the effective mentoring they received from him. The lessons he taught and confidence he instilled continue to positively influence some of the prominent scientific minds of today.

His deep love for NIH and health science research compelled him to stay involved after retirement. He established the Foundation for NIH, which had been endorsed by Congress but not established. He developed its by-laws, had it incorporated, convened its first Board meetings, and served as its first Executive Director. Once the Foundation was established and its role as fundraiser began, he turned the Executive Directorship over to professional fundraisers. He also continued to work for the International Society for Antiviral Research, for which he raised over $100,000 per year in addition to other supportive activities. He served as consultant to a pharmaceutical company and assisted other scientific societies.

Dr. Galasso’s many contributions to NIH were recognized by his election to the Board of Directors of the NIH Alumni Association in 2002 through 2007, during which time he took an active role in their Financial Committee and chairing their fundraising efforts.

Dr. Galasso applied his administrative skills in the community as well. His contributions to the community included establishing the Parkwood Durham Recreation Association (North Carolina) and community swimming pool, serving as Treasurer of the Church Council of St. Thomas More (Chapel Hill, N.C.), Cub Scout Master (Rockville, Md.), and President of the Julius West Junior High School PTA (Rockville, Md.). He organized a successful Neighborhood Watch program in his community, effected the improvement of neighborhood lighting, and convinced city officials to build a Bocce Ball Court for the local senior center (Rockville, Md.), where he provided lessons for all who were interested, reportedly happy to introduce this bit of Italian culture to his neighborhood. He served in various leadership roles at the senior center and later at his retirement community (Silver Spring, Md.), where he also convinced management to build two Bocce Ball Courts for the residents.

Dr. Galasso was the recipient of several Public Health Service and Achievement Awards and the Distinguished Service Award from the University of North Carolina. He was awarded the title Cavaliere Della Republica by the President of Italy in 1989 for services to the field of public health and collaborations with Italian scientists. He received distinguished service awards from the International Society for Antiviral Research and the International Society for Interferon and Cytokine Research. He received an Honorary Doctorate of Science from his alma mater, Manhattan College, in 2007.

During his commencement address, Dr. Galasso closed with a statement reflecting his philosophy of life: “Remember, the only limits that really matter are the ones you put on yourself... In all your dealings with others, be a person of truth, reliability, and honesty. Anything less is a prescription for failure. Your good character is your greatest asset.”

Obituary Submitted by:
Cathy Galasso-Schwartz