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Donald M. Small, M.D. ’60

Posted On - Oct. 16, 2019

Donald M. Small, M.D. '60Donald M. Small, M.D. ’60, recipient of the Distinguished Achievement Award of the Alumni of UCLA Medical School, passed away on Jan. 25, 2019, at his California home. He was 87.

Small served a long and distinguished 57-year career at Boston University School of Medicine. He was a former BUSM Professor and Chair, Department of Physiology & Biophysics. He founded the BUSM Biophysics Institute, which evolved into the Department of Biophysics, and served as its Chair from 1988 to 2000. He guided its merger with the Department of Physiology in 2000, and served as Chair of Physiology & Biophysics until 2006 when he passed the role to Dr. David Atkinson. After completing a residency in internal medicine, Small trained as a physical chemist with expertise in the study of bulk and surface properties of lipids. For more than 40 years, he and his colleagues studied the physical biochemistry of bile, lipoproteins and atherosclerotic lesions, and throughout this period had more than 300 publications. In 1968 he published, with his colleague Dr. William H. Admirand, several major papers on gallstones including “The physico-chemical basis of cholesterol gallstone formation in man” in the Journal of Clinical Investigation, and “Solubility of bile salts” in Nature, which led to important breakthroughs in gallstone dissolution and non-surgical treatments for gallstone disease.

In 1974, Small published, together with his colleague Dr. G. Graham Shipley, a seminal paper in Science on the physical-chemical basis of lipid deposition in atherosclerosis. In 1986 he published “The Physical Chemistry of Lipids, from Alkanes to Phospholipids,” a highly acclaimed 672-page resource. Small led an NIH-funded Program Project Grant “Structural and Cell Biology in Cardiovascular Systems” and, together with his colleagues in the department, received $51.7 million in grant funding during his career.

Small was a Phi Beta Kappa graduate of Occidental College, and was a Marshall Scholar to Magdalen College with an M.A. (Oxon) at Oxford University, UK. He received his M.D. from UCLA and completed a fellowship in biophysics with special training and work in the physical chemistry of lipids under the renowned Professor D.G. Dervichian at The Institut Pasteur in Paris, where, along with Dr. Dervichian and M. Bourges, from 1966 to 1967 he published articles on lipid research in the Journal of Molecular Crystals and Liquid Crystals, Biochimica et Biophysica Acta (BBA) and “Ternary and quaternary acqueous systems containing bile salts, lecithins and cholesterol” in Nature (1966).

Among his many honors, Small was selected by the American Heart Association in 1986 to deliver the George Lyman Duff Memorial Lecture on his extensive work on the physical-biochemistry of atherosclerotic lesions and served as Chairman of the Council on Atherosclerosis of the American Heart Association from 1992-1994 and Vice Chairman for several decades; he also received the first Distinguished Achievement Award of the Alumni of UCLA Medical School in 1988; the Eppinger Prize from the 4th International Congress on Liver Diseases in 1976; and the Annual Distinguished Achievement Award from the American Gastroenterological Association in 1972. He served on numerous committees at the School of Medicine and Boston University, local and national societies, and editorial boards, in addition to a variety of advisory board roles at the National Institutes of Health.

Small was committed to teaching and training the next generation of physician scientists, having mentored more than forty-five M.D./Ph.D. postdoctoral fellows and served on greater than forty Ph.D. dissertation committees. He gave the commencement address at the UCLA School of Medicine graduation in 1982, in which he encouraged the graduating students to consider pursuing careers in scientific research.

Small’s passion for science was boundless and knew no end. Working right up until his retirement at the end of 2018, his final (co-authored) scientific paper documenting new work and discoveries that perilipin proteins associate with lipid droplets in a hierarchical manner, was published on Jan. 16, 2019, in Molecular Biology of the Cell, just nine days before he died.

An avid sportsman and nature-lover, Small skied until the age of 85, was a surfer in his youth and a life guard at San Clemente State Park. He enjoyed outdoor activities, including fly fishing, hiking and camping in the Sierra Nevada Mountains. He navigated the Grand Canyon of the Colorado River several times, including in a kayak. He loved the Southwest and worked on the Navaho Reservation. He was an extensive traveler and had a broad knowledge of the world with a variety of interests including history, geology, art and music. A recognized gastronome and wine-connoisseur, he became a passionate cook in his later years and in 1991 published, with Cheryl Oliva and Anna M. Tercyak, “Chemistry in the kitchen: Making Ground Meat More Healthful” in The New England Journal of Medicine, outlining a technique that enabled saturated fats and cholesterol to be removed from meat without affecting its flavor, which led to a US patent award for the technology to Boston University. He had an insatiable curiosity in how everything in the world worked, a brilliant mind and strong political views. While concern over the lack of adequate funding for pure scientific research was present throughout his entire career, in later years he grew extremely concerned about global warming, nuclear contamination and the increasing role of corporate influence on America’s health care system, including medical research.

Donald MacFarland Small was born in Newton, Mass., on September 15, 1931 to Dr. Willard Stanton and Grace MacFarland Small, but was raised in Southern California. he married his first wife Elisabeth (Betty) Small ’55, M.D. ’60, in 1957 while they were in Oxford, UK. Their first son, Geoffrey, was born in 1959 in Los Angeles; their second son, Philip, was born in 1964 in Paris, France. Betty passed away in 2013. Small was married to his second wife Kathryn from 1986 to 2000; they celebrated the birth of their son, Samuel, in 1991.

Don is survived by his sons Geoffrey (Diana) Small, Philip (Nina) Small and Samuel Small; grandchildren Hugo and Lily Small, Riley and Elmo Small; ex-wife Kathryn (Douglas) Dame; sisters Jane Small, Mews Small and Emilie (Michael Segal) Small ’69; and niece Rebecca (George) Yaghmour (nee Kraut) ’03.