Goodbye to a Gator Great

Goodbye to a Gator great

Founder of UF’s McKnight Brain Institute passes away

By John Pastor

Dr. William Luttge, founder of the McKnight Brain Institute, passed away March 24.

Neuroscientist William G. “Bill” Luttge, 67, the founding executive director of the Evelyn F. and William L. McKnight Brain Institute of UF, passed away March 24 at Shands at UF. His wife, sons and other family members were at his side.

He was diagnosed in January with multiple myeloma, a cancer of plasma cells in the bone marrow.

Luttge channeled the vast amount of brain research under way at UF in the 1980s and 1990s into a comprehensive program, resulting in a $60 million Brain Institute research building that was dedicated in 1998.

“Bill Luttge was always private and very modest, but his accomplishments are gigantic,” said Mark Gold, M.D., the Donald Dizney Eminent Scholar and chair of psychiatry in the College of Medicine. “He is one of the founders of modern neuroscience.”

Colleagues say Luttge was an early innovator of a neuroscience movement that flowered in the late 1990s, employing interdisciplinary teams to understand complex human behavior and intractable diseases. In 1998, UF’s Brain Institute was among the first crop of institutes and centers sprouting around the country.

“The university has lost one of its great heroes,” said Michael L. Good, M.D., dean of the College of Medicine. “Dr. Luttge challenged diseases of the brain by creating the McKnight Brain Institute and filling it with some of the nation’s best scientists. Bill Luttge’s impact on science was significant and far-reaching.”

Luttge joined UF in 1971 as an assistant professor of neuroscience after earning his Ph.D. in biological sciences at the University of California, Irvine. The neuroscience department at the College of Medicine was one of the first of its kind in the country, and Luttge quickly became its leader, studying the molecular and behavioral actions of steroids in the brain.

In the early 1990s, Luttge worked closely with Albert Rhoton, M.D., and Richard Smith, M.D., to build support for a campuswide initiative to harness UF’s research, clinical care and educational skills to solve brain disorders. In 1991, while chair of the neuroscience department, Luttge saw a small Department of Defense advertisement in an obscure newsletter. It called for proposals to build a major national brain and spinal cord research center.

With the help of his wife Michaelyn, Luttge pieced together descriptions of the many but disparate elements of brain research at UF into a comprehensive proposal. He included disciplines whose connections to brain research had been overlooked, Gold said.

“Bill always thought way ahead of the curve,” Gold said.

In 1992, UF won the $18 million grant. With the help of additional grants, UF opened the doors of its $60 million Brain Institute in 1992. Today, the MBI has more than 300 affiliated faculty working to end the ravages of brain diseases and age-related memory loss.

In a 2003 interview, Luttge said it remained a source of amazement that UF gave him — “just a regular faculty member” — the opportunity to create the Brain Institute.

“Knowing that they trusted me, I didn’t want to do anything other than the best possible job,” Luttge said.

Luttge served as chair of neuroscience for nearly 20 years, was senior associate dean for research and basic science for the College of Medicine and chair of the scientific advisory committee for the UF General Clinical Research Center for two years. He received the College of Medicine’s Lifetime Achievement Award in 2003 and was named an Honorary Alumnus.

In addition to his wife, Michaelyn Luttge, he is survived by two sons, William R. Luttge of Gainesville and Benjamin Luttge of Cleveland; three grandchildren, one older sister and two younger brothers.

In a message written after Luttge’s death, his wife wrote: “In the 10 weeks since his diagnosis with multiple myeloma, a cancer of plasma cells that causes bone lesions, Dr. Luttge attended seminars, met with former UF colleagues and new faculty, took the opportunity to tell his sons how proud he was of them, and with every available moment reminisced with his wife over a life well spent.”