Walter Eckhart

Walter Eckhart, who helped transform the Salk Institute into a power in cancer research, dies at 84

His work contributed to the creation of Gleevec, Avastin and other key pharmaceutical drugs
By Gary Robbins
June 24, 2022 2:02 PM PT

Biochemist Walter Eckhart, whose insights about the tricky nature of cancer helped other scientists create such life-saving drugs as Gleevec and Avastin and helped establish the Salk Institute as one of the world’s foremost biomedical research centers, died in La Jolla. He was 84.

His wife Karen Lane said that he passed away at home on June 21 of natural causes, not far from the Salk, where colleagues say he showed an almost preternatural ability to recruit gifted scientists during a career that lasted more than a half-century.

“I’m shocked that he’s gone. He never seemed to age,” said one of those recruits, Geoffrey Wahl. “A lot of what the institute has become is due to Walter.”

Many people called him Uncle Walter because of his sweet, nurturing demeanor. Colleagues say his gentle bearing belied the soul of a driven leader and bench scientist whose idea of fun was taking on more work.

The institute’s namesake, Jonas Salk, who invented the first effective vaccine against polio, named Eckhart director of Salk’s cancer center in 1976, when there was lots of research money nationally due to the “war on cancer” that President Richard Nixon launched five years earlier.

Eckhart was only 38 at the time and a fairly junior figure at a new and often chaotic institute where Nobel laureates such as Francis Crick and Robert Holley dominated people’s attention.

But Eckhart — who was known for quiet diplomacy — thrived during his 32-year tenure as director, recruiting such future luminaries as Ron Evans, whose study of hormones helped others create drugs to fight cancer, heart disease and diabetes.

Eckhart also recruited Tony Hunter, a young British biologist who shared his interest in exploring the mechanics of how cancer develops and how it might be suppressed. Their foundational work made them famous and was important in the creation of Gleevec, an anti-cancer drug that had special meaning for Eckhart. It was used to send his grand niece’s leukemia into remission. Faculty say Hunter’s novel insights represent the kind of work that wins Nobel Prize.

Hunter, who succeeded Eckhart as director, said, “Walter was very humble and a good leader. He basically left us to do what we wanted to do, but always had good advice on how we should do it.”

Eckhart was born on May 22, 1938, in Yonkers, New York. His father, also known as Walter, was a schoolteacher who taught his son the value of frugality and determination. Those values were reinforced by his mother, Jean, a homemaker.

Later in life, Eckhart’s colleagues would witness the results. He could always be found at noon in the travertine courtyard of the Salk, eating cheese sandwiches that he’d made the night before at his home on Mount Soledad, one of the priciest areas of San Diego. The big blue Pacific laid out before him. But he usually became immersed in shop talk with his lab partner, Suzanne Simon.

Science was his source of oxygen.

Eckhart earned a bachelor’s degree in biophysics at Yale University in 1960, then, at age 22, made a bold move, sending a letter to Crick, asking if he could work in his lab that summer at the University of Cambridge.

Crick was a superstar, having co-discovered the structure of DNA seven years earlier with James Watson. It earned both men, and Maurice Wilkins, a Nobel Prize.

“Francis wrote back and politely said, ‘No, sorry, we don’t have any space,’ ” Lane, his widow, told the Union-Tribune. “Walter, being frugal, wrote back and said, ‘Well, I really don’t need much space.’ They wrote back and forth until Francis said yes.

“Walter took a ship to England and was sick the whole time. He never got on a ship again. And he was so intimidated by Crick that he walked around for two days before he dared to go into his lab and say hello.”

That wasn’t the extent of their relationship. Crick joined the Salk faculty at the same time Eckhart was taking over the cancer center. Jonas Salk recruited many stars like Crick, believing that talent attracts talent, a philosophy that would benefit Eckhart. And one that he would perpetuate.

In 1965, after earning a doctorate at UC Berkeley, Eckhart was recruited to the Salk by virologist Renato Dulbecco, who was on his way to earning a Nobel. Eckhart started out as a postdoctoral researcher and quickly rose up the ranks. By the 1970s, he was pulling in talent like Hunter, Evans and Wahl, an expert on breast and pancreatic cancer.

Reuben Shaw, another Salk cancer researcher, marvels at how things unfolded.

“Walter was involved in recruiting an entire generation of cancer researchers,” Shaw said. “He put the Salk on the map in that area.

“He was a gentleman scientist, nice to a fault, and really good at bringing people together.”

The Salk says Eckhart is survived by his wife, Karen Lane; her daughter and son-in-law, Jasmine and David Penick, and their children, Shane and Emma; Eckhart’s sister, Elizabeth Nagle, and her husband, Jack Nagle; nephew Rob Nagle and his wife, Heather Allyn; and nephew David Nagle, his wife, Siana Nagle, and their daughters, Imogen and Sally.