Charles D. Surh

Charles D. Surh, Ph.D. (AAI ’95) - AAI extends condolences to the family, friends, and colleagues of renowned T cell immunologist Charles Surh, Ph.D., who died in October at the age of 56. Surh was a professor and director of the Institute for Basic Science at South Korea’s Pohang University of Science and Technology. The following tribute was authored by Surh mentor, friend, and colleague Jonathan Sprent, M.D., Ph.D., AAI ’80; AAI gratefully acknowledges the submission.

Charles D. Surh (“Charlie” to all his colleagues), a distinguished immunologist and AAI member, died at home on October 6 after a long battle with colon cancer. Charlie is survived by his wife Helen Oh-Surh (Poway, CA) and his three children, Nicolette Surh Baker (San Francisco, CA), Christopher Surh (Poway, CA), and Natalie Surh (Berkeley, CA), and by his brother Donald Surh (Napa, CA), sisters Dong-Mi Surh (Novato, CA) and Helen Surh (San Francisco, CA), and his parents Jay W. Surh and Ok Boon Surh (Torrance, CA).

Charlie was born on January 30, 1961, in Seoul, South Korea. At the age of 11 he immigrated with his parents to the United States (U.S.) where they settled in Torrance, CA, and became American citizens. After high school, Charlie attended the University of California, San Diego (UCSD) where he received a B.S. degree in chemistry in 1983. After graduating, intrigued by immunology, he stayed on at UCSD and worked for a year as a technician in the lab of Mark Glassy. There he learned to prepare hybridomas and published a number of papers on this topic with Mark. He then moved to Davis and enrolled in a master’s program in immunology at the University of California, Davis in the lab of Eric Gershwin. Eric quickly saw Charlie’s potential and switched him to a Ph.D. program. Under Eric’s supervision, Charlie worked on autoimmune disease and published a flurry of papers on the target antigens for autoantibody formation associated with primary biliary cirrhosis. He received his Ph.D. for these studies in 1989. He met his future wife, Helen, during college and they married in 1985.

After completing his Ph.D., Charlie brought his young family back to San Diego where he joined my lab as a postdoc at The Scripps Research Institute. There he worked on the basic biology of T cells, focusing on the structure and function of the thymus and the physiology and lifespan of mature T cells. He collaborated widely with his colleagues at Scripps and was highly productive, publishing many papers in premium journals. He rapidly became fully independent and was appointed assistant professor with his own lab at Scripps in 1993; he was promoted to associate professor in 1998 and to professor in 2008. Throughout this time he became increasingly interested in the issue of how T cells are kept alive through interaction with the microenvironment of the lymphoid tissues and, in this respect, he pioneered the emerging field of lymphocyte homeostasis.

His eminence in basic immunology led Charlie to be recruited to Korea to participate in the World Class University (WCU) program, an agency of the Korean government designed to improve the local standard of science by inviting overseas experts to spend several months a year teaching students at various universities. Charlie and I joined the WCU Program at Pohang University of Science and Technology (POSTECH) in 2009. Working part-time for several months a year, we jointly taught basic T cell biology to local undergraduates and recruited a number of graduate students. A few years before this, Charlie had visited John Cebra at the University of Pennsylvania to examine T cell homeostasis in germ-free mice. Much influenced by this collaboration, Charlie decided to set up a colony of germ-free, and then antigen-free, mice in Pohang to seek detailed information on the role of food antigens and commensal microbiota on the immune system. This animal center soon attracted international interest and led the newly-created Korean Institute of Basic Science (IBS) to appoint Charlie to a full-time position as director of the Academy of Immunology and Microbiology at POSTECH in 2009. He maintained his links with the U.S. through a part-time appointment as adjunct professor at the La Jolla Institute of Allergy and Immunology in San Diego.

Charlie’s research in T cell immunology was wide ranging and he was particularly adept at analysing T cell function in vivo. Here, his protean interests involved topics as diverse as T cell differentiation in thymus reaggregation cultures, lack of self- tolerance in xenogenic chimeras, and re-entry of T cells to the thymus – on all of which he published articles in excellent journals. These in vivo studies culminated in his important discovery that “homeostatic” proliferation of naïve T cells during lymphopenia is controlled by raised levels of IL-7 and is directed to self MHC ligands, including the same ligands that led to positive selection in the thymus. He also had a special talent for histology, as indicated by his influential early Nature paper where he pioneered the use of TUNEL staining for demonstrating cell death by apoptosis during thymic selection. In his later career, his decision to focus his lab in Pohang on the influence of gut commensals on T cell homeostasis was beautifully christened by his recent paper in Science on the role of food and microbial antigens in stimulating local Treg cell generation. His leadership in this fertile field will be deeply missed.

Charlie was an active member of the AAI and regularly attended the annual meetings, where he was a president’s symposium and major symposium speaker. He served as a member of the AAI Program Committee and as an abstract programming chair. He taught at the AAI Advanced Immunology Course and served as an associate editor for The Journal of Immunology.

Charlie’s many contributions to basic T cell immunology have been highly influential. His work is especially marked by an impressive blend of creativity, insight, and thoroughness. In conversation, his quiet, intense enthusiasm for science was engaging; indeed it was Charlie’s “boundless energy” in the lab that convinced Eric Gershwin to initially accept him as a graduate student. Charlie’s energy apparently also extended to pre-dawn golf where he dutifully helped Eric with “retrieving my balls in the bushes.” I will remember Charlie as the ideal postdoc: hard-working and inventive, but also kind and considerate too, using admirable tact to convince his boss to change some of his fixed ideas. To his colleagues, Charlie was always fun to be with, someone to really look forward to meeting at a conference and then to wind down with later at dinner, often along with an excellent pinot noir from his cellar, to be savoured during deep discussions on the pros and cons of anergy, the curse of the third reviewer, how to control a fade, and so on…

Though a loyal friend to many of his colleagues, Charlie was closest to his family, especially to his beloved wife Helen and their three children. Many of us were privileged to share evenings in their home in San Diego, learning the delights of Korean cooking from Helen while Charlie opened another treasure from his cellar.

When he became ill, he showed great courage and determination in convincing his clinical colleagues to try yet another form of immunotherapy, but sadly with diminishing effect. It is a comfort to know he passed away peacefully at home surrounded by his family. He will be remembered with great respect and fondness.



Dr. Surh was remembered by his Pohang University Institute for Basic Science colleagues on October 10 and 11; see