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William Knox Chandler, gifted scientific researcher and member of the Yale Medical School Department of Cellular and Molecular Physiology from 1966 until his retirement in 2010, died on March 20 at the age of 83. The cause was a hemorrhagic stroke.
Chandler’s intellectual accomplishments were recognized by the National Academy of Science (NAS), which inducted him in 1990, describing him as “the world’s leading investigator of excitation-contraction coupling,” the physiological process in muscle fibers by which an electrical stimulus is converted to a mechanical response. The NAS election citation goes on to say that Chandler’s incisive work “opened new areas of research in the cellular physiology of nerve and muscle.”
Although physics was his first scientific passion, he received an MD from the University of Louisville in 1959, where he soon realized that clinical practice did not attract him. Instead he discovered his life’s direction in a basement laboratory at the medical school where, while still a student, he participated in pioneering electrophysiological experiments. After graduation he worked at the National Institutes of Health, held a fellowship at Brown University, and was recruited as a collaborator by Nobel Laureate Sir Alan Hodgkin at the University of Cambridge in England.
During his years at Yale, Knox mentored the careers of younger investigators, who, in the words of one of them, attributed their growth as scientists to “observing how Knox did rigorous science while making it fun in the process.” His many scientific articles (published primarily in the Journal of Physiology and the Journal of General Physiology) took time to gestate and were always finished products. Over a period of 35 years the National Institutes of Health supported his laboratory at Yale by virtually continuous funding. Knox was a beloved contributor to the intellectual life of the department, always eager to learn new experimental and theoretical approaches to physiological problems near or far from his work. He and his co-workers were also talented purveyors of practical jokes, an ability that Knox had already begun to demonstrate as an adolescent. Knox’s noteworthy sense of humor expressed itself also in subtle (and at times, not so subtle) verbal wit and in a wardrobe of T-shirts printed with ironic comments on life, politics, and the world in general.
Many of his friends and neighbors were unaware of his scientific achievements. They knew him as a man with a sunny disposition and a deep curiosity about the world. Born in Chicago, Knox grew up primarily in Texas, which may have accounted for his drawl, his taste for country music, and his fondness for down-home barbecue. (His courtesy, however, was innate.) His legendary backyard barbecues featured whole pork shoulders roasted slowly in his large smoker until tender enough to “pull.” For years he tended an extensive organic vegetable garden, starting his plants from seed and nurturing them in raised beds. He was a generous and expansive host who enjoyed being with other people and shared with his friends and colleagues his love of good food and good times. He also enjoyed good music, everything from bluegrass (he played guitar and banjo), to opera and chamber music, to family sing-alongs.
In retirement he returned to his first passion and “read” physics.
With Caroline, his loving wife of almost 60 years, he shared travels to remote and exotic locales, as well as projects closer to their North Guilford home: the restoration of a historic barn, the creation of a pond in their back meadow, and, in collaboration with the Guilford Land Trust, the preservation as open space of land on County Road, projects that have enriched the lives of their four children and nine grandchildren.
The family plans a memorial celebration of his life at some future time. In lieu of flowers, donations may be made to the Guilford Land Conservation Trust or to Doctors Without Borders.
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