Irma Gigli is Professor Emeritus at the University of Texas, Houston where she served as The Walter & Mary Mischer Distinguished Professor in Molecular Medicine, The Hans J. Müller-Eberhard Chair in Immunology, and the Director of the Brown Foundation Institute of Molecular Medicine Center for Immunology & Autoimmune Diseases.
Dr. Irma Gigli received her undergraduate education in Argentina. In the “States” she did her medical residency at Cook County Hospital in Chicago, Illinois followed by basic research training in complement at New York University. She next undertook three years of complement focused protein chemistry studies at the Howard Hughes Medical Institute in Miami, Florida. This was followed by two years in Germany (University of Frankfurt) before she joined the faculty at Harvard Medical School, where she worked until 1976. After a ‘stint’ in Oxford, UK, and a brief Professorship at New York University, she accepted a post as Chief of the Division of Dermatology at UC San Diego. In 1992, she moved to UT Houston where she was appointed Professor of Medicine and Dermatology, Vice-Chair of Medical Sciences and co-founded the Brown Foundation Institute of Molecular Medicine Center for the Prevention of Human Diseases at UT Houston for which she initially served as its Deputy Director.
Dr. Gigli has won numerous prizes throughout her remarkable scientific career including being an elected member of the Board of Scientific Counselors of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases and of the Board of Directors of the US Civilian Research and Development Foundation. In 2003, Dr. Gigli received the Distinguished Professional Woman of the Year Award from the University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston. She is the recipient of the 2005 David Martin Carter Mentor Award from the American Skin Association, and also received the Stephen Rothman Memorial Award from the Society for Investigative Dermatology. Dr. Gigli is an Honorary Member and Past-President of the Society for Investigative Dermatology. She is also a member of the American Society for Clinical Investigation, the International Complement Society, the Association of American Physicians, the American Academy of Dermatology, the Institute of Medicine of the National Academy of Sciences, and a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. She serves on the Board of Directors for the Academy of Medicine, Science & Engineering of Texas. She has been on a number of national and international committees dealing with education and health in the US and third world countries. She is on the Board of Directors of the International Community Foundation in San Diego, and the Board of Directors of the US Civilian Research and Development Foundation.
Several of her outstanding contributions to the field of complement research include the following:
Application to a specific clinical field. Dr. Gigli was one of the early physician-scientists who was able to successfully bridge basic immunology with clinical dermatology. In fact, her efforts in this important area of translational research led to the formation of the first NIH sponsored program in “Immunodermatology”.
Phylogeny. She is also particularly known for her studies on the evolution of the complement systems’ regulatory proteins, FH and C4 binding protein, and of the early components of the classical pathway including C1q, C1r, C1s, C4 and C2. Her basic science work has always had as its fundamental underpinning the relevance of basic science research to human disease. This goal was a strong motivator for her to accept a leadership position in the creation and development of the Brown Foundation Institute of Molecular Medicine for the Prevention of Human Diseases in 1995, along with her late husband, Professor , the Founding Director of the Institute.
Pathogens and Complement. She was the first to demonstrate that proteases from a pathogen (Entamoeba histolytica) can degrade complement effector proteins such as C3b and anaphylatoxins. This key observation led to many subsequent studies on multiple other pathogens who either hijacked our regulators or synthesized their own mimic.
Her exemplary career as a mentor. Above all, she is recognized as an outstanding and life-long mentor to the many clinical and basic research students and fellows she trained during her career.
Her extensive training and collaborations with multiple pioneers in the complement field were envied by many of us. Beginning in Florida with Robert Nelson (which included a 1962 paper where they purified all nine components of the classical pathway in the guinea pig), multiple seminal publications with K. Frank Austen and colleagues at Harvard on the phylogeny of the subcomponents of C1, C4 and C2 in multiple species, informative studies with Victor Nussenzweig at New York University including key reports on CR1 and the plasma regulators and fundamental studies on the early components of the classical pathway with Rodney Porter and colleagues in London. Irma’s close connections with some of the giants in the complement field also extended into her private life: Irma was married to Hans J. Müller-Eberhard the premier complement protein chemist of his time – a rather amazing story – with whom she then co-founded the Institute at the University of Texas, Houston. As noted by Claudia Kemper “On top of this, Irma was known for her love of fashion and there was arguably no other female PI in the field during her time that looked as ‘chique’ in a lab coat as Irma”.
To further summarize her scientific accomplishments, she has published over 160 original manuscripts and book chapters, many of which identified basic mechanisms involved in host defense and in the development of skin diseases. Her expertise is not limited only to the crossroads of clinical immunology and dermatology but also many contributions to our understanding of the basic biology of the complement system. In her career, she has always been fully committed to the vision that the quality of life of mankind can be greatly improved by understanding the mechanisms of the diseases that afflict them and that advances in biomedical sciences can prevent disease occurrence.
*Multiple individuals attributed to this tribute including Claudia Kemper (who trained with Irma), Laura Simon, (Research Support Librarian at the Bernard Becker Medical Library at Washington University School of Medicine who pulled together the publication record and citation data) and Madonna Bogacki for manuscript preparation.
John P. Atkinson, M.D.