Alan Granoff

St. Jude remembers the life and legacy of Allan Granoff

In this, its 50th anniversary year, St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital has been paying homage to its legends—the courageous individuals responsible for the hospital’s early survival and growth. One of those heroes was Allan Granoff, PhD, who died Sunday, May 13. In 1962, Granoff glimpsed the potential of St. Jude; he spent the next 32 years pouring his energy, skills and heart into transforming the fledgling facility into one of the world’s premier research institutions.

A World War II veteran who fought in the Battle of the Bulge, Granoff was a virologist at the New York Public Health Research Institute when Donald Pinkel, MD, the hospital’s first director, lured him to St. Jude.

Allan first visited St Jude in January 1962, during construction,” Pinkel said. “He had been recommended by Renato Dulbecco, a Nobel Prize-winning virologist, but was receiving offers from prestigious institutions because of his cutting-edge pioneering studies of influenza and Newcastle virus genetics. I first talked with him by phone and refused to hang up until he agreed to visit.”

Change of venue

Before accepting a position in the segregated South, Granoff demanded assurances that his new place of employment would hire and treat all people, regardless of race. He also made certain that the hospital would not have separate restrooms for blacks and whites. Granoff went on to become actively involved in the Civil Rights Movement.

The young researcher, who had recently lost his wife to breast cancer, brought his three children with him to Memphis, where he began to build a world-class department of Virology and Molecular Biology.

“I will always admire his courage in coming to St. Jude when it was nothing but Danny Thomas’ dream,” said Dr. William E. Evans, St. Jude director and CEO. “To move from New York to Memphis took great courage in and of itself in 1962, but it served as a sign to other scientists that St. Jude was worth taking a risk. As I have said many times, he was a pioneer, and deserves credit for planting the seeds that became this wonderful place of St. Jude.”

The consummate salesman

In 1962, many members of the scientific community suspected that viruses were the source of cancer. By studying viruses, researchers hoped to glean fundamental information about molecular biology, gene regulation and other crucial issues. Granoff’s efforts included work on frog and chicken viruses. The respected researcher helped establish the hospital’s scientific credibility and soon became an avid recruiter of other outstanding young scientists.

“The story goes that he began life as a shoe salesman in New York,” said Robert Webster, PhD, Infectious Diseases. “He was a superb salesman. In 1967, he picked up the telephone and called me in Australia. He told me that St. Jude was the place of the future. He said that this was a brand-new institution with fantastic potential, and he sold me on the idea of putting basic science and clinical science together in one place.”

Adamant that the hospital’s scientific standards must be world class, Granoff encouraged basic scientists at St. Jude to pursue outside support. Under his guidance, his colleagues began to win grants from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and other organizations.

He taught more people to write grants that got funded than anyone else in this institution,” said Webster, with whom Granoff co-edited both editions of the three-volume Encyclopedia of Virology. “He had a natural ability to present work so that everyone could understand it. His statement was, ‘If your grandmother can’t understand it, then it’s not satisfactory.’ His main message to scientists was, ‘Tell a story, and keep it simple.’ That was the real secret of his being able to present the most complicated science to the public, to the scientific community and to the review boards at NIH so they could understand the principles as well as the quality of the science.”

After serving as department chair for 26 years, Granoff became deputy director under then-Director Joseph Simone, MD. Upon Simone’s departure in 1992, Granoff served briefly as the hospital’s interim director. The annual St. Jude Allan Granoff Lectureship on the St. Jude campus honors his contributions to the hospital, to Virology, and to the worldwide scientific community. In an article Simone wrote several years ago, he deemed Granoff “a scientist and a leader of scientists.”

Beyond science

Granoff and St. Jude founder Danny Thomas had mutual respect and admiration, with the pair laughing heartily over stories and jokes during Thomas’ visits to the hospital. An amateur artist, actor and magician, Granoff entertained young St. Jude patients with magic tricks and appeared in numerous Memphis theater productions. His acting career extended to roles on the silver screen, playing a deputy sheriff in the movie Walking Tall, Part II and a bit part in Making the Grade.

Granoff was known throughout the hospital for his personable and compassionate nature.

“He was kind of like a father-figure,” said Janice Ivory, Gift Shop. “If you wanted to talk with him, it didn’t matter how busy he was, he would make time for you. Always. And he would give the best advice.”

One of Granoff’s earliest recruits was Allen Portner, PhD, who is now retired from the Infectious Diseases department. Portner readily admits that he owes much of his career and advancement in science to what he learned from Granoff.

“The three most important things in his life were his family, his friends and St. Jude,” Portner said. “I couldn’t have had a better friend than Allan. As a personal friend and as a mentor, he always told you what was the right thing to do. Sometimes you might not like what he said, but you knew he was right.

“Allan had many accomplishments,” Portner continued, “but I think as a leader he was special, as a scientist he was special, and as a friend he was special.”

Granoff is survived by his wife of 45 years, Fay; his four children, Jimmy, Barbara, David and Nina, and their families; and his brother, Sherman.