Robert G. Spiro, M.D.:  Family and Career

On another web site (see my link below "More Than 50 Years of Type 1 Diabetes") I have described my experience with this disease as a patient, physician and researcher, but at least as important to my life has been the fact that my family and I had to flee Nazi Germany and had the good fortune, as refugees from religious persecution, to reach and settle in the United States where I was able to pursue a career in medicine and science.

I was born GŁnter Spiro in Berlin, Germany, in 1929 in a family which traces its ancestry to the Rhineland city of Speyer in which a vibrant Jewish community already existed in the eleventh century and at that time the town was called by the Latin name "Spira", explaining the derivation of my family name. Because of the Nazi persecution my parents, brother and I fled to the United States where we arrived via wartime England in 1940 in a warship-protected convoy on one of the last passenger vessels to cross the Atlantic during World War II. Due to the increasing Nazi terror my parents had sent me in 1938 to a school in Gstaad, Switzerland, which I attended for two years before joining them in London (see my link below "GstaadLife Article, September 2006". After arriving in the United States I added Robert to my name (Robert Gunter Spiro) because of the difficulty of English speakers in pronouncing the German "Ł" in my birth name.

I received an A.B. With Honors from Columbia College in 1951. Subsequently I attended the SUNY Upstate College of Medicine at Syracuse from which I received an M.D. degree (cum laude) in 1955. There I met my future wife, Mary Jane Paisley (see the link below "Mary Jane Spiro's web page"), who was working for her Ph.D. and we married in 1952. In 1954 I developed type 1 diabetes which I have now had for 56 years (see the links below to my web pages "More Than 50 years of Type 1 Diabetes" and "Suggestions for Living with Type 1 Diabetes").

After I completed a medical internship we moved to Boston in 1956 where we have been associated with Harvard Medical School throughout our careers. I received postdoctoral training in the Harvard Department of Biological Chemistry (1956-58) and at the Massachusetts General Hospital (1958-61). I then joined the Joslin Diabetes Center and established a laboratory devoted to the study of the diabetic kidney complications and membrane glycoproteins. My research on the structure and biosynthesis of the renal glomerular filter indicated that it consisted of proteins to which a complicated array of sugars are attached (glycoproteins, proteoglycans and collagens) and this greatly broadened the scope of the research to the structure, biosynthesis and biological function of these molecules which are important components of cell and basement membranes and have been implicated in a host of diseases, including cancer, virus infections, immune disorders, arthritis and various other kidney diseases (see the link below "My Publications").

Our studies on the kidney glomerulus in diabetes provided a biochemical rationale for tight blood sugar control which is now a universally accepted concept. This work was recognized by my receipt of the Lilly Award from the American Diabetes Association and the Claude Bernard Award of the European Association for the Study of Diabetes. The research on glycoproteins helped to provide seminal information and concepts to a field (glycobiology) which is still rapidly expanding because of its relevance to so many human diseases.  In 2008 the work in the latter field was recognized by the Rosalind Kornfeld Award for Lifetime Achievement in Glycobiology (see below the link to my "Remarks" upon receiving this award).

For many years I was involved in the teaching of biochemistry to first year Harvard Medical students. My laboratory during its 40 years of existence provided pre- and postdoctoral training to more than 60 individuals from many countries, a large number of whom have become leaders in their fields. In 1965 my wife joined the laboratory and many of the studies were undertaken in collaboration with her (see the link below "My Publications"). I am currently Professor Emeritus at Harvard Medical School (Biological Chemistry and Medicine) and Senior Investigator Emeritus at the Joslin Diabetes Center where I continue to write about and follow the latest advances in diabetes and glycoprotein research.

We have two sons, David and Mark, both of whom received Ph.D. degrees in the biological sciences. They each have two children, giving us the pleasure of four grandchildren.

My nonscientific interests are cultural and political world history, stamp collecting, classical music and chess.

I also have a Welsh Pembroke Corgi who takes me for pleasant walks.


My Links:

More Than 50 Years of Type 1 Diabetes
My Publications
Suggestions for Living with Type 1 Diabetes
Mary Jane Spiro's web page
GstaadLife Article, September, 2006
Living for 50 years with diabetes (Diabetes Parents Journal)
Remarks upon receiving the Rosalind Kornfeld Award, 2008

Contact me:

robert.spiro@joslin.harvard.edu