Marvin Louis Lewbart, M.Sc., M.D., Ph.D.
It was a cold wet winter day in Cambridge England when scholar and scientist Francis Crick walked into the Eagle Pub and shouted to no one in particular, “we have found the secret of life.” After countless hours of intensive laboratory work James D. Watson and Francis Crick had solved the mystery of life’s blue print anatomy. They had discovered the molecular structure of deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA). The date was February 28, 1953 and Marvin Louis Lewbart was completing a master’s degree in hospital pharmacy and had been accepted to Jefferson Medical College in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Watson and Crick’s Nobel prize-winning work was published in the journal Nature later that year, widely recognized as the top scientific journal in the world, and the same journal where young Marvin would publish his first paper, 2 years later at the age of 26. He published two more first author Nature papers (1959, 1969), dozens of papers in other high ranking chemistry journals, and 12 US patents.
Establishing the chemical structure for DNA, known widely as the double helix, would pave the way for generations of medical and scientific advances in the fields of genetics, molecular biology and a new field known as genomics. This same technology, the results published while Marvin Lewbart was in medical school, would eventually reveal him to be 97.9% Ashkenazi Jew, 0.2% Sardinian, 0.2% Middle Eastern, and 0.2% North African.
Marvin Louis Lewbart was born May 28, 1929, in Philadelphia Pennsylvania. Over the course of the first 30 years of his life he obtained four college degrees, a license to practice medicine, had married, and fathered the first of four sons. He was also fluent in German and Spanish. During the next few years he became the first Mayo Fellow to focus on steroid chemistry, turned down a post-doctoral fellowship at none other than Cambridge University, and spent 14 months studying and collaborating with 1950 Nobel Laureate Professor Thaddeus Reichstein at the University of Basel in Switzerland. The two would publish two important research papers together.
Marvin’s long working career started when he was still a young boy in Woodlynne, NJ when he connected with a teenager named John Schmidt who had a Courier Post newspaper route. The Post published pink sheet horse racing numbers that were quite popular at the time. For five cents a week Marvin would ride on John’s handlebars and shag papers flung by John that didn’t get close enough to the door. At the end of the Day Marvin’s fingers would be pink from delivering all of the pink sheets. In 1942 John went into the service and Marvin, at the age of 13, took over the paper route. He kept the route all through high school and even into college, where he studied pharmacy at the Philadelphia College of Pharmacy (PCP).
During his first year of college Marvin would work Sunday’s at a pharmacy called Arrow Cut Rate Drug at 15th and Market Street just across from Suburban Station in Philadelphia. There he sold cigarettes for 0.50 per hour (though later he would become a strong anti-smoking advocate). Marvin also worked part time at his father’s laundry doing whatever needed to be done and he took orders from people working at the laundry and sold them goods from Arrow Cut Rate.
Marvin was also an accomplished athlete who played first base in a semi-pro baseball league that featured at least two future major league players. Like many first baseman Marvin was left-handed and his teammates called him “Lefty.” The Lewbart athletic gene runs in the family as Marvin’s father (Abraham) played basketball for the South Philadelphia Hebrew Association (SPHAs), the forerunner of the Philadelphia 76ers and two of Marvin’s sons and one grandson played college baseball.
Marvin started working at the Rappaport Pharmacy in 1948 while he was a second year pharmacy student. Marvin loved pharmacy school and chemistry in general. He graduated in 1951 and then enrolled in graduate school to do a master’s degree in hospital pharmacy at PCP. While in graduate school he did an internship at the Jefferson Medical College hospital pharmacy and realized hospital pharmacy wasn’t for him. So he switched programs and completed a master of science in pharmacy in 1953. But his time at the medical school and hospital intrigued him so he applied to Jefferson in 1952 and was accepted in the winter of 1953 to begin classes that fall. The only medical school he applied to was Jefferson but he also applied to a PhD chemistry program at Purdue University in Indiana. He was accepted to both but declined the Purdue opportunity. In 1952 Marvin met Dr. John Schneider while working at the hospital pharmacy at Jefferson. Marvin took an interest, visited the Schneider lab, and started working with him during the summer of 1952 before medical school started. While Marvin was a medical student he would work with Dr. Schneider after class and the two began a nearly 25 year collaboration.
After graduating from medical school Marvin did his internship at Lankenau Hospital in Philadelphia from 1957-58. The time and energy consuming internship did not keep Marvin from his beloved steroid research. He even had his own lab at Lankenau when he located and received permission to use a laboratory that no one was using. Some of Marvin’s steroid isolation work required precise time points for urine collection. One memorable collection occurred while the subject, a fellow intern, was getting a haircut by the local barber.
Next it was off to the University of Minnesota in 1958 to officially begin is PhD work. Between 1959 and 1963 Marvin and Virginia (Whiteford) had four sons and moved from Minneapolis to Rochester Minnesota to Basel Switzerland to Levittown (later Willingboro) New Jersey where the couple raised their four boys. Starting in 1964 the family spent most of their summers in Maine fishing, hiking, swimming, and exploring nature. For over 15 years Marvin worked at Jefferson doing research and moonlighting in South Jersey independently owned pharmacies. Later, after Dr. Schneider retired, Marvin began working as the company doctor for the Franklin Mint and also spent many years doing insurance physicals. He continued with his steroid research in labs at the Crozer Chester Medical Center, in Malvern PA, and in Voorhees NJ, where he retired at the age of 90 in 2019.
Marvin loved to travel, read (especially biographies and history), listen to classical music, collect guns, target shoot, fish, and spend time with loved ones. He was an accomplished photographer who even made an in-home darkroom in the 1960’s for developing film and printing pictures.
Marvin leaves behind the mother of his four sons, Virginia, sons and daughter in-laws Gregory (Diane Deresienski), Daniel (Shafinaz Akhter), Randolph (Susan nee Sorbello), and Keith (Donna nee Montgomery); seven grandchildren (Jeremy, Tyler, Ryan, Joshua, Maya, Amina, and Layna), and two nieces (Andrea Slaveter and Mallory Friedenberg), and recent partner Elaine Barlow. Marvin was predeceased by his parents Ada and Abraham, brother Lionel, niece Vicki, and partner of more than 20 years, Barbara Langford. While Marvin was an exceedingly accomplished physician, chemist, and scholar he was most proud of his four sons, their wives, and his seven grandchildren.
In lieu of flowers and for those wishing to make a donation please consider Trout Unlimited, the NC State College of Veterinary Medicine Turtle Rescue Team, and Samaritan Hospice.