Former Biophysics Chair and Senior Dean of Graduate Studies Dies

Mar. 13, 2012

Paul L. LaCelle, M.D., a University of Rochester Medical Center faculty member for more than 40 years, a former department chair and former senior dean, died March 9. He was 82.

Dr. LaCelle, a 1959 graduate of the University’s School of Medicine and Dentistry, joined the faculty in 1964 as an instructor of what was then the Department of Radiation Biology and Biophysics. He was named a professor in 1974 and chaired what is now the Department of Biochemistry and Biophysics from 1977 to 1996.

He was named acting senior associate dean for graduate studies in 1996 and was appointed to the position in 2001, serving until 2008. After stepping down as dean, Dr. LaCelle became a professor emeritus of Pharmacology and Physiology. He continued to work in research and in mentoring scientists until just a few months before his death.

“Paul LaCelle served our School of Medicine and Dentistry and the Medical Center for many years by recruiting many excellent scientists and fostering solid research,” said Mark B. Taubman, M.D., dean of the School of Medicine and Dentistry. “We are proud of what he provided us and we mourn his death.”

Marshall A. Lichtman, M.D., professor of Medicine and a former dean of the School of Medicine and Dentistry, called Dr. LaCelle “one of the great contributors to this Medical Center.”

“He was a fine physician and hematologist but chose to focus on blood cell research and in so doing he pioneered the field of blood cell biophysics at this school,” Lichtman said. “As chair, he developed the department and recruited outstanding scientists to the school. He was a thoughtful and gentle person and had the great respect and affection of those who worked with him. I valued his friendship and will miss him dearly.”

Richard E. Waugh, Ph.D., chair of the Department of Biomedical Engineering, described Dr. LaCelle as “highly intelligent, insightful, hard-working, thoughtful and caring.”

“He also had a great laconic wit.  Even last week, in the last stages of his illness, reflecting on careers, he commented, ‘It's good to either contribute or make trouble,’ ’’ Waugh said.

Gary D. Paige, M.D., Ph.D., chair of the Department of Neurobiology and Anatomy, said Dr. LaCelle was “a man of high integrity and candor, but he also encapsulated the wonderful collegiate ecology for which Rochester is well-known.”

“He was both a source of history and a solid confidante for me as I progressed through different roles, and was particularly helpful in the process of taking on the leadership of my department,” Paige said. “He was in many ways an academic ‘uncle’ for me, and I have missed his presence in recent years since retirement. I cherish the memories from a personal vantage point but also in light of his many contributions to this institution at many levels.”

Waugh also said Dr. LaCelle made many contributions to the University.

“I owe a great deal to him personally,” Waugh said. “He was the one who brought me to Rochester in 1978 and set me up with my own lab, even though I was just a post-doc at the time. He was my mentor in the early years of my career, and shepherded me through promotions and tenure.”

In addition to recruiting Waugh and other faculty, Dr. LaCelle also was the principal investigator of a large National Institutes of Health program project grant in biomedical engineering that helped fund the work of involved faculty, Lichtman said. The grant is still active and in its fourth decade.

“That is a remarkable record of continuous funding,” Lichtman said.

During Dr. LaCelle’s time as senior associate dean, three new graduate programs were developed: a Ph.D in translational biomedical sciences, a Ph.D. in epidemiology, and a master’s degree in marriage and family counseling. The number of graduate students also increased, in parallel with the increase in research faculty.

“Paul was one of the reasons I have spent my entire career in Rochester,” said Robert “Berch” Griggs, M.D., a former chair of Neurology. “He spent great effort on making sure excellence was recognized and rewarded. He worked, often behind the scenes and with no interest in being recognized for his own contributions, to make the University of Rochester and Rochester the best we could be.  Brilliance, integrity, and loyalty.”

Dr. LaCelle was the last chair of what was the Department of Biophysics. His tenure spanned the era when the department focused on the cold war mission of understanding the effects of radiation on humans to the current interest on details of molecular structure and how they relate to health problems.

As senior associate dean for graduate studies he was “extraordinarily successful,” said Robert Bambara, Ph.D., who succeeded him as chair of the merged Department of Biochemistry and Biophysics.

“He advocated for better recruitment, higher stipends and superior mentoring for graduate students,” said Bambara, now a professor of Microbiology and Immunology. “Through his effort, we accepted graduate researchers who went on to make some of the most important discoveries in the medical center over the last 10 years and provided the research base needed to greatly improve our grant funding. His gentle approach helped match compatible student and mentor, and solved all manner of problems so that students could focus on their research productivity.”

Dr. LaCelle, who was born July 4, 1929, earned his undergraduate degree at Houghton College. He served in the U.S. Navy during the Korean War.

Dr. LaCelle’s wife, June Dukeshire LaCelle, died in 2008. He is survived by his four children, two sisters, two brothers and five grandchildren.

Calling hours will be held from 4 p.m. to 7 p.m. Saturday, March 17, at the Keenan Funeral Home, 7501 Pittsford-Palmyra Rd., Egypt. A memorial service will be held at 2 p.m. Sunday at the Penfield Wesleyan Church, 1580 Five Mile Line Road. Charitable donations can be made to the Wilmot Cancer Center.