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Stephen I Katz: influential director of the National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases at the US National Institutes of Health

BMJ 2019; 364 doi: (Published 11 January 2019) Cite this as: BMJ 2019;364:l171
  1. Bob Roehr
  1. Washington, DC, USA
  1. bobroehr{at}

Steve Katz’s selection to be director of the US National Institutes of Health (NIH) National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases (NIAMS) in 1995 generated some apprehension among the arthritis community.

The institute had been separated from a larger body by law in 1985. Its first director was renowned rheumatologist Lawrence E Shulman. As its second director, Katz was an unknown figure, a dermatologist who had a laboratory at the National Cancer Institute.

“He quickly won over both the research and patient communities with his commitment to science, immunology, and the NIH,” Debra Lappin told The BMJ. She served on an advisory council to NIAMS and was a board member and later chair of the non-profit Arthritis Foundation when Katz was appointed.

“He was politically very astute. You don’t do all that he did without understanding how to manage, how to read the political tea leaves, and how to prioritise what was important for his time and leadership.” Lappin said, “I don’t think I ever sent him an email that he didn’t respond to within an hour, I marvelled at that.”

“I evened the playing field across these various constituencies by attending their meetings, by speaking to them, by answering sometimes very difficult and indelicate questions,” Katz said in a 2018 interview. “I was not afraid of doing that because I knew that if we adhered to outstanding science, both extramurally and intramurally, nobody could argue with that.”

“Playing well in the sandbox”

Early in his career Katz mixed basic and clinical research, a pattern that continued until he closed his laboratory in 2014. He initially focused on inherited and acquired blistering skin diseases, and later showed that skin is an important component of the immune system in both its normal function and as a target of immunologically mediated disease. But he really shone as a facilitator who got the best out of others.

Katz recalled in his interview how the then NIH director and Nobel laureate Harold Varmus chose him to lead NIAMS, Varmus advised him “not only to be a good steward of taxpayer dollars, but also to ‘play well in the sandbox,’ and to be fair. That’s what I’ve tried to do.”

A string of NIH directors recognised Katz’s commitment to those goals and his success in achieving them. They tapped his counsel over the years for a variety of matters and programmes. His interests and influence were so much broader than his job title suggests.

Lappin says it helps to know that Katz was a musician who played guitar in a band called ARRA (Affordable Rock’n’Roll Act), now a 13 member group of NIHers ranging from postdocs to current director Francis Collins, the catalyst behind its initial formation. Playing in a band requires individual competence as well as deference and teamwork, so that the sum is greater than the parts.

“We have lost one of our most beloved leaders at NIH,” said Collins in a statement released by his office. “I would claim that there is no institute director who has done more over the past two decades to help the entire NIH enterprise flourish.”

“When we needed someone to provide advice on a complex topic, we called Steve. When we wanted someone to mentor a new member of NIH leadership, we called Steve. And he always said yes. His legacy is simply profound,” Collins continued.

“We have lost a man who unquestionably qualifies as a giant of skin biology research. Few, if any, can claim the reach and impact of Dr Katz,” said the Society for Investigative Dermatology. “His brilliance in the laboratory was complemented by his remarkable skills as a relationship builder. He was a ‘real mensch.’”

The Arthritis Foundation noted Katz’s “sharp and quick witted intellect.” It praised his leadership “in the middle of rapidly evolving treatment paradigms: from the transformation of biology through the molecular era, the advent of biologics, and the sophistication of big data approaches in present day.”

Early life and career

Stephen I Katz was born in New York City. When he was 11 the family moved to Bethesda, Maryland, where he would spend much of his life. His father refused to let him join the Coast Guard, so he attended the University of Maryland, where the previously mediocre student blossomed and graduated with honours. Medical school at Tulane University was followed by a medical internship in Los Angeles, a dermatology residency in Miami, and military service at the Walter Reed Army Military Center. A postdoctoral fellowship took him to the Royal College of Surgeons of England and a PhD in immunology from the University of London (1974). He was a senior investigator at the National Cancer Institute (1974-2014) and director of NIAMS (1995-2018).

Katz was active in dermatology organisations throughout his career, including serving on the board and as president of the Society for Investigative Dermatology, and president of both the International League of Dermatological Societies and the International Committee of Dermatology. Furthermore, he was recognised within his profession with seemingly every award possible, including, last year, the Gold Medal from the American Academy of Dermatology. He also received the highest honour for a US civil servant, the Distinguished Executive Presidential Rank award.

He leaves Linda, his wife of 51 years; three children (Mark, Kenneth, and Karen); and his extended family.

Stephen I Katz (b 1941; q Tulane University 1966; MD, PhD), died from a stroke on 20 December 2018

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