William E. Paul, immunologist who shaped HIV/AIDS research, dies at 79

October 8, 2015

By Emily Langer
October 7, 2015

William E. Paul, a leading immunologist with the National Institutes of Health who oversaw and redirected HIV/AIDS research in the United States in the mid-1990s, when some activists feared that an effective treatment was becoming increasingly elusive, died Sept. 18 at a hospital in New York City. He was 79.

The cause was complications from acute myeloid leukemia, said his son Matthew Paul.

Dr. Paul spent 45 years — from 1970 until his death — as chief of the immunology laboratory at NIH’s National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, where he was credited with leading scientific advances, including the discovery of interleukin-4, a signaling chemical in the immune system.

But he assumed perhaps his most public role in 1994, when he was named director of the NIH Office of AIDS Research. Before his appointment, the director had only limited budgetary authority, leading some HIV/AIDS activists to complain that the federal response to the disease had been poorly coordinated and ultimately unfruitful.

In an effort to eliminate redundancy and focus resources effectively, Dr. Paul was granted broad authority to determine how the government would deploy its $1.3 billion allocated for research on HIV/AIDS.

“A turning point has been reached. Simple continuation of the policies of the past is likely to bring us only slow, fitful progress,” he wrote in the journal Science in 1995.

During nearly four years as director, Dr. Paul refocused federal efforts to favor basic research over clinical trials and individual scientists over government commissions. He also helped establish the NIH Vaccine Research Center, whose primary focus is the search for vaccines for AIDS.

In 1997, he stepped down as AIDS research director, returning to his research work in the immunology laboratory. Years later, in an interview with the American Association of Immunologists, he reflected on his relationship with the HIV/AIDS activists whose advocacy had helped lead to his strengthened role at the Office of AIDS Research.

“It turned out it was just at a tipping point. The advocacy community had gone for the view that you were going to make progress against this disease not by yelling at people, but by getting behind what ought to be the way forward, and the way forward was science,” he said. “Then they became the greatest supports for the Office of AIDS Research.”

William Erwin Paul was born in Brooklyn, N.Y., on June 12, 1936. His mother had several scientists in her family. His father, an immigrant from what is now Ukraine, ran an automobile repair shop.

William Paul graduated in 1956 from Brooklyn College and four years later from the State University of New York Downstate College of Medicine.

He did his early work at institutions including New York University, where he worked in the lab led by Baruj Benacerraf, an immunologist who shared the 1980 Nobel Prize in medicine.

Dr. Paul joined the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases in 1968, becoming laboratory chief two years later. While working at NIH, he served in the U.S. Public Health Service, attaining the rank of rear admiral. He was the author of “Fundamental Immunology,” a widely used textbook.

Dr. Paul, a longtime Potomac, Md., resident, lived most recently in Washington.

Survivors include his wife of 57 years, the former Marilyn Heller of the District; two sons, Matthew Paul of Washington and Jonathan Carmel of Ann Arbor, Mich., and Kfar Netter, Israel; two sisters, Linda Weinstock of Arlington, Va., and Harriet Darvas of Mount Sinai, N.Y.; and six grandchildren.

Originally published by WashingtonPost.com