Dr. Frederick Joseph de Serres Jr. died Sunday, December 21st at UNC Hospitals in Chapel Hill as a result of complications of Alpha-1 anti trypsin deficiency and a muscle wasting disorder. He was surrounded by his loving family and friends as he passed. He was 85.
The son of Frederick J. de Serres, a stockbroker, and Helen Henshaw de Serres, a homemaker, he was born and raised in Dobbs Ferry, New York with his younger sister Marilyn. He was a 1944 graduate of Dobbs Ferry High School. He received his Bachelor of Science degree in Biology/Chemistry from Tufts University in 1951. He completed a pre-doctoral fellowship at the National Cancer Institute, and then his Masters and PhD degrees in Genetics/Botany from Yale University in 1953 and 1955 respectively. In 1954 he married Christine Marie Covone of New Haven, CT, who was also an aspiring geneticist working as a research assistant under the same mentor. Throughout their marriage she acted as his sounding board and scientific muse.
The couple moved to Oak Ridge, Tennessee in 1955 with their first son, Mark, when Dr. de Serres was recruited to work as a post-doctoral research associate in the Biology Division at Oak Ridge National Laboratories (ORNL). Dr. de Serres then became a research scientist and worked in Oak Ridge for the next 15 years. In the mid to late 60’s he worked on projects with NASA and the first biosatellites to study the effects of ionizing radiation and weightlessness on basic biologic processes in plants and animals using the Neurospora crassa ad-3 system which he developed. In 1972, Dr. de Serres was offered a position as Laboratory Chief of Environmental Mutagenesis in the intramural research program at the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS) in Research Triangle Park, North Carolina, and he, Christine, and their five children moved to Chapel Hill. He was involved in several international collaborative scientific efforts, including the US-USSR Environmental Protection Agreement and the US-Japan Cooperative Medical Sciences program. These collaborations, as well as others in the international scientific community, allowed him to combine his passion for science with that of food and travel.
In 1976 he received the NIH Director’s Award, the highest award given by the National Institutes of Health, based on his work in developing an environmental mutagenesis program to study the potential mutant effects of agents found in the environment. He was cited for his “leadership and guidance” in developing cooperative efforts which have “broadened the scope and influence of mutagenic testing and research worldwide”. He then became the associate director for genetics at NIEHS for the next ten years. In 1986 he became the Director of the Center for Life Sciences and Toxicology at Research Triangle Institute in which he oversaw programs involving mammalian mutagenesis, teratology, reproductive toxicology, and in vitro toxicology. In his later years, after his own diagnosis of a genetic disease, alpha-1 antitrypsin deficiency, he became very active in the Alpha-1 Foundation and began performing epidemiologic research to describe the prevalence of this disorder worldwide. He continued to write peer reviewed scientific papers into his early 80’s, authoring almost 500 contributions to the scientific literature.
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Dr. de Serres was a man of many interests and talents. He loved trying new foods on his international travels and bringing these experiences home to his family. He and his wife shared a love of cooking and botany. They were always creating and executing the next great meal, and were able to express their love of botany through constant gardening and landscaping of their homes in Oak Ridge and Chapel Hill, even as he became progressively disabled by a rare muscle wasting disease. He loved spending time with his children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren.
He is survived by his son Mark de Serres and wife Suzan Council de Serres of Chapel Hill; son Paul C. de Serres and fiancée René Suitt of Durham; son David de Serres of Raleigh; daughter-in-law Barbara Egan de Serres of Raleigh; daughter Dr. Lianne de Serres McKhann and husband Dr. Guy McKhann of Bronxville, New York, 9 grandchildren and 4 great grandchildren. He is pre-deceased by his son, Jonathan F. de Serres, who died in 1996, and his wife Christine, who died in 2008.
In lieu of flowers, the family asks that donations be made to the Alpha-1 Foundation.
A private burial service will be performed on January 4th, 2015, followed by a memorial service in the spring.