Frederic de Hoffmann, co-founder of a seminal San Diego research corporation and the man who lifted the Salk Institute to financial stability, resigned Wednesday as chief executive officer of Salk because he is infected with the AIDS virus.
“Dr. de Hoffmann had coronary bypass surgery in March of 1984, before AIDS virus testing in blood was done. Several weeks ago, Dr. de Hoffmann was diagnosed as having the AIDS virus as a result of having the blood transfusions,” said a statement read by Salk spokeswoman Dianne Carter. “He has been treated as was appropriate and is currently at home and feeling very well.”
De Hoffmann’s operation occurred one year before blood supplies in the United States began being tested for the presence of human immunodeficiency virus, which causes the fatal immune disorder AIDS. In San Diego County, there have been 36 cases of transfusion-caused AIDS diagnosed since 1982, a quarter of them this year.
Assessment of Loss
The loss of de Hoffman, 64, as chief administrator and fund-raiser at Salk will certainly be a blow to the institution, said Roger Revelle, director emeritus of Scripps Institution of Oceanography. A longtime leader in San Diego’s research community, Revelle helped found UC San Diego.
“My opinion is that Dr. de Hoffmann is the savior of the Salk Institute,” Revelle said. “His ability to raise funds--before he became the president of the institution--it was touch and go whether it was going to survive or not. It’s relatively prosperous now, and it’s largely due to his skill and hard work.”
“I think it’s going to be impossible” to replace him, Revelle said. “Maybe I’m wrong, but he’s an example of an irreplaceable man.”
De Hoffmann built Salk from a budget of $5 million in 1970 to a $35-million-a-year institution now, with four Nobel laureates among its 500 staff members.
A nuclear physicist who began working on the Manhattan Project in 1944, when he was just 20 years old, de Hoffmann left Los Alamos National Laboratory in 1955 to found General Atomics Inc. with General Dynamics Chairman John Jay Hopkins.
The firm led the way in investigating the peaceful uses of nuclear energy. It developed a nuclear reactor cooled by helium rather than water, and invented a reactor know as TRIGA, which remains the world’s most popular research reactor because of its inherent safety features, according to General Atomics.
Locally, General Atomics played a key role in bringing to San Diego scientists who later spawned such firms as the giant Science Applications International and Maxwell Labs.
After General Atomics was sold, de Hoffmann joined Salk as chancellor in 1970 and became president in 1972.
De Hoffmann’s resignation came Wednesday morning at a meeting of the board of trustees, Carter said. Renato Dulbecco, a distinguished research professor at Salk, was appointed acting president until a successor can be chosen.
The board also named de Hoffmann as president emeritus of Salk and said he will retain his position as a Salk trustee.
Salk was founded in 1960 by polio vaccine developer Dr. Jonas Salk, to study the cell and its interaction with other cells and the environment. Salk continues to be active at the institute and has developed an AIDS vaccine that currently is under study.