Pharmacologist, Nobel laureate. Furchgott was born in Charleston on June 4, 1916, the second of three sons born to Arthur Furchgott and Pena Sorrentrue. Arthur Furchgott, his father, and his brothers operated Furchgott’s Department Store on King Street in Charleston until 1929 when the family moved to Orangeburg and opened a ladies’ clothing store. When he was a young boy, Furchgott’s first interest was “natural history.” He participated in nature study classes and field trips sponsored by the Charleston Museum. After his family moved to Orangeburg, Furchgott became interested in science. He was an avid reader of popular works about scientists and science columns in the New York Times.
After graduating from high school in 1933, Furchgott spent his freshman year at the University of South Carolina because he could not afford the tuition at the University of North Carolina. The next year his father moved his business to Goldsboro, North Carolina, and Furchgott enrolled as a sophomore at UNC to major in chemistry. He graduated with a B.S. in 1937 and went on to earn a Ph.D. in biochemistry at Northwestern University in 1940. On November 23, 1941, Furchgott married Lenore Mandelbaum, a New Yorker. They have three daughters.
Furchgott was a research fellow and faculty member at Cornell University College of Medicine from 1940 to 1949 and a faculty member at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis from 1949 to 1956. He served as professor and chairman of the Department of Pharmacology at SUNY Downstate Medical Center in Brooklyn from 1956 to 1982 and was later named distinguished professor emeritus. Since 1989 he has been an adjunct professor of pharmacology at the University of Miami School of Medicine and a distinguished university professor at the Medical University of South Carolina.
Furchgott became known for his research in cardiac pharmacology, peripheral adrenergic mechanisms, the theory of drug-receptor mechanisms, and vascular pharmacology and physiology. In the 1950s he developed the helical strip of rabbit thoracic aorta as a model system for studies on drug receptor mechanisms that led to its use in laboratories worldwide. From 1956 to 1978 his research concerned photorelaxation of blood vessels, factors influencing contractility of cardiac muscle, peripheral adrenegic mechanisms, and receptor theory. In 1978 he accidentally discovered that vascular smooth muscle is photosensitive, undergoing reversible relaxation when exposed to ultraviolet light. In 1980 he reported his discovery of the obligatory role of endothelial cells in the relaxation (vasodilation) of arteries by acetylcholine and related muscarinic agonists. Furchgott demonstrated that the relaxation resulted from release of a labile factor (called EDRF endothelium-derived relaxing factor) from the stimulated endothelial cells. In 1986 Furchgott presented evidence that EDRF is nitric oxide (NO) and that the neurotransmitter released by NANC nerves may also be NO. In 1998 Furchgott, Louis J. Ignarro, and Ferid Murad were jointly awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for their discoveries concerning nitric oxide as a signaling molecule in the cardiovascular system. The discovery that NO is a gas that can act as a signal molecule in the organism has had profound implications for the treatment of cardiovascular conditions and other diseases.
Besides sharing the Nobel Prize, Furchgott was awarded the Albert Lasker Basic Medical Research Award (1996) and numerous other awards. He is the recipient of honorary doctoral degrees (in medicine or science) from eleven universities and is a member of the National Academy of Sciences (1990) and a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences (2000).
Furchgott, Robert F. “A Research Trail over Half a Century.” Annual Review of Pharmacology and Toxicology 35 (1995): 1–27.