John B. Graham

This obituary honors John B. Graham's dedication to research and UNC medical students. October 1, 2004 -- UNC News Service Article No. 471

 Dr. John Borden Graham, whose decades of medical research helped unlock many mysteries of hemophilia and other bleeding disorders, died at his home on Sept. 25. He was 86.

"John Graham’s inimitable style left a lasting impression on all of us who studied with him," said Dr. Harold Roberts, Sarah Graham Kenan distinguished professor of medicine, and pathology and laboratory medicine at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and renowned hematology expert.

"His legacy to patients with bleeding problems, especially patients with hemophilia, is a tremendous one. He established, to my knowledge, the first clinical coagulation laboratory in the United States, a laboratory devoted to the diagnosis and treatment of patients with hereditary and acquired bleeding disorders."

Alumni distinguished professor emeritus of pathology and laboratory medicine at UNC, Graham was a Goldsboro native who received his bachelor of science degree from Davidson College in 1938, his certificate of medicine in 1940 from UNC and his medical degree from Cornell University in 1942. He entered the U.S. Army after a residency in pathology and served more than two years; he was a battalion surgeon in the 77th Infantry Division during and after the battle of Okinawa during World War II.

Graham came to Chapel Hill in 1946 as an instructor in pathology at UNC. He spent his entire career at the university, officially retiring in 1985 but continuing his research until his wife, Ruby, became ill in 1993. He remained an interested participant in departmental activities and was in attendance at grand rounds the day before his death.

His accomplishments at UNC were many and far-reaching. He was instrumental in establishing a genetics curriculum, creating the first formal genetics course in 1954 and serving as curriculum chairman from its 1963 start until his 1985 retirement from the full-time faculty. His pioneering efforts provided the foundation for today’s Carolina Center for Genome Sciences.

Graham was chairman of the National Institutes of Health’s genetics training committee in the late 1960s and early 1970s, helping to establish training programs in genetics at top universities nationwide. He also was past secretary and president of the American Society of Human Genetics.

He was known campuswide for his advocacy of collaboration among academic areas and his research within human population studies, and Chancellor Paul Sharp in the mid-1960s requested that Graham bring together all academic areas necessary for studying human population growth. The Carolina Population Center resulted from that effort, and he chaired the center from 1964 to 1967.

His research career at UNC began in 1947 with studies of blood coagulation and hemostasis, then included genetics and human population dynamics. He discovered (with Dr. Cecil Hougie) the coagulation factor X, the central enzyme in the coagulation reactions causing a normal blood clot, Roberts said. His research also demonstrated that a gene on the X chromosome was crucial in vitamin D metabolism.

Dr. Kenneth Brinkhous, who developed the first effective treatment for hemophilia, became chairman of UNC’s department of pathology and laboratory medicine the same year Graham joined the medical faculty.

"The two of them succeeded in establishing a world-renowned research group devoted to the understanding of how blood clots, and this understanding has been an essential step for the tremendous progress in the diagnosis and treatment of heart attacks, strokes and deep venous thrombosis," said Roberts.

Graham published more than 250 scientific articles and, additionally, wrote books detailing his military career, the issue of home health care, the history of UNC’s pathology department, opinions on world events and other subjects.

Among his many honors were the university’s O. Max Gardner Award, honoring him as "creative investigator, stimulating teacher and perceptive leader." In 1985, the internationally recognized expert in blood coagulation, genetics and human population dynamics was selected as the UNC School of Medicine’s first Norma Berryhill Distinguished Lecturer.

In 1992, he received the School of Medicine’s Distinguished Service Award for his impact on medical education in North Carolina and exceptional contributions to research in genetics and hematology.

"Personally, he was a Southern gentleman of the old school. Professionally, he was a scientist of international eminence and an innovative teacher," said Dr. Joe Grisham, Kenan professor of pathology and laboratory medicine emeritus and the department’s chairman from 1973 through 1999.

"As a scientist, he first recognized several obscure bleeding disorders in afflicted patients in North Carolina and identified the abnormal proteins that were responsible for some of them. As a teacher, he initiated the programs of graduate training and research at UNC, which continue to yield new understanding on the mechanisms and therapies of diseases."

"John Graham made truly remarkable contributions to the School of Medicine during the critically important formative years when the school developed from a two-year state medical college with meager research into a major academic medical center with internationally renowned research accomplishments," said Dr. Charles Jennette, Brinkhous distinguished professor and chairman of pathology and laboratory medicine.

"John Graham laid the foundation for many of the current preeminent programs in genetics, vascular biology and population-based studies of disease and, by example, led the way in many other areas. Dr. Graham’s death is a great loss to the department and the university but he leaves behind an indelible legacy."

Graham is survived by his wife, Ruby Barrett Graham; his two sons, Barrett Graham of Newport and Thomas Graham of Carrboro; his daughter, Virginia Drill of Hillsborough; and two granddaughters, Catherine Drill and Linda Graham.

A memorial service will be held at the University Presbyterian Church, 209 E. Franklin St., at 2 p.m. on Oct. 8.

In lieu of flowers, the family asks that gifts be made to the John B. Graham Student Research Society Scholarship, Medical Foundation of North Carolina, 880 Airport Road, CB #7565, Chapel Hill, NC 27514.