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In Memoriam: F. Norman Briggs, Ph.D.

August 26, 2009

Dr. F. Norman (Norm) Briggs passed away in his sleep in the evening of August 7, 2009.  He died of complications from chemotherapy.  Norm served as Chair of the Department of Physiology at MCV of VCU from 1971-1983.  He completed his studies in Physiology and Endocrinology at the University of California, Berkeley (A.B. 1947, M.S. 1948, Ph.D. 1953), and trained in muscle physiology in Heidelberg, Germany (1955).  Norm held academic positions at Harvard Dental School, Harvard Medical School, Tufts Medical School and the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine before joining VCU in 1971.

As a department chair, Norm recruited a number of talented scientists, many of whom remain as active faculty members in the department today.  He recruited Ellis Ridgway and David Mayer in 1972, Peter Clamann and Donald Mikulecky in 1973, John DeSimone and Roland Pittman in 1974, Margaret Biber, Thomas Biber, Alexandre Fabiato, and Barry Stein in 1975, Clive Baumgarten, Richard Costanzo, Steven Driska, Joseph Feher, and Mohammed Kalimi in 1979, and Linda Costanzo in 1981.  Under his leadership, the department ranked among the top 10 physiology departments in the country.

Norm made many contributions to the scientific literature and to the development of careers of eminent scientists including John Solaro, Earl Homsher, Michael Hess. 

Joseph Feher recalls a story as an example of Norm’s empathy for and support of colleagues in the Department. When Norm arrived in our Department from Pittsburgh, Sybil Street was still a member of our faculty.  She was the wife and colleague of Robert Ramsey, for whom the Ramsey Award is named, and she was instrumental in the publication of their length-tension data obtained on single isolated fibers, because at the time Sybil Street was the only one in the world who could produce those single fibers.   This was in the late 40's and early 50's.  These data were an important part of the information that led Huxley and Niedergarke to postulate the sliding filament hypothesis of muscle contraction.  The paper by Ramsey and Street remains part of our classical heritage. After Bob Ramsey died, Sybil remained in the Department.  I recall Norm having several discussions with Sybil Street about her work and later learned that Norm supported her last research efforts with Departmental funds, and directed Bob Wise, a state-supported technician assigned to Norm, to aid Sybil in any way possible, but particularly in designing and making devices to measure the tiny forces produced by single muscle fibers.  Sybil used these funds, and Bob's help, to publish yet another classic paper in 1983 in the Journal of Cell Physiology.  Every serious student of muscle physiology ought to know this paper, which deals with the lateral transmission of force in muscle.

Norman Briggs will be missed by all of us in the Department of Physiology and Biophysics.  Those of us who knew him and those who know of him continue to enjoy the many good things he contributed to the department and the institution during his many years of service to VCU.

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