Harald von Boehmer

AAI honorary member Harald von Boehmer, M.D., Ph.D. (AAI Hon. ’92) died on June 24, 2018. The following remembrance was authored by Ken Shortman, Ph.D., FAA, (AAI Hon. ’96), honorary professor and past head of the Immunology Division at the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute in Melbourne, Australia. AAI gratefully acknowledges the submission.

It is sad to report that on the 24th of June, Harald von Boehmer, a renowned immunologist and honorary member of AAI, died at age 76 following a progressive degenerative disease. To borrow from The Journal of Immunology nomenclature, Harald was a true "Pillar of Immunology," his impact reflected in his classic papers on the development and functions of T cells and in his many international awards and honors. He is survived by his wife Monica, who gave him lifetime support, and his three children: Philip, Lise, and Lotta.

Harald von Boehmer obtained his M.D. in 1968 from Ludwig Maximilian University in Munich. He then came to the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute (WEHI) in Melbourne as part of a group of exceptional young German scientists aiming for training in cellular immunology. I was fortunate to have him assigned to my laboratory, where our work at that time focused on developing cell separation techniques in the days before FACS. Although I was nominally his supervisor for the Melbourne University Ph.D. that he obtained in 1974, Harald revealed from the outset the independence of thought, creative experimental design, and critical approach to science that would characterize his career. He actually benefited from the fact that his “supervisor” was on sabbatical leave in Lausanne during part of his Ph.D. training!

After WEHI, Harald became a member of the Basel Institute of Immunology from 1973 to 1996, where his scientific potential was fully expressed. He was the first to use TCR transgenic mice to investigate a basic immunological problem, namely, the process of TCR specificity repertoire selection in the thymus. The remarkable publications from his group over this time are central to our understanding of the role of the thymus in T cell development.

From the Basel Institute, Harald moved to Paris and served from 1997 to 1999 as director of INSERM Unite 373 at the Rene Descartes University. His work on T cells continued with the demonstration of the role of the pre-TCR in early T cell development.

In 1999, Harald was appointed a professor of pathology at Harvard Medical School and chief of the Laboratory of Lymphocyte Biology at the Dana Farber Cancer Institute in Boston. There, he studied the factors required for the generation and activation of regulatory T cells, with particular focus on their potential clinical use in preventing autoimmune disease.

Harald retired to his home in Seefeld, Austria, in 2013. Despite restricted mobility, Harald maintained a position as visiting professor at the Institute for Immunology of the Ludwig Maximilian University of Munich and initiated the excellent series of Seefeld Midwinter Conferences.

Physically tall in stature, Harald von Boehmer cast an equally imposing shadow intellectually among the leading figures in immunology. He loved debate and delighted in challenging those whose views countered his own. While his direct approach was undoubtedly intimidating to some, those who knew him found it stimulating. Harald was a genuine seeker of truth and one who clearly enjoyed research. As he noted in reflecting on his years in Basel, “There was a strong element of play and naïve curiosity in my studies” ["Positive and Negative Selection in Basel," Nature Immunology 9 (6): 571–573 (2008)]. He was impatient of detail, always seeking basic biological rules – a trait exemplified in the title of an article he wrote reviewing his findings on developing T cells: “The Thymus Selects the Useful, Neglects the Useless, and Destroys the Harmful.”

Although Harald was no diplomat, his career involving research in Germany, Australia, Switzerland, France, and the United States serves as a model for the international basis of scientific research. Harald could be exceptionally generous and supportive of his friends, of students, and of researchers whose science he respected. Harald and Monica were great hosts, and I and many colleagues will fondly remember the superb food, wine, and company at their home. Harald loved music and was himself an accomplished cellist. He was also an excellent skier. It was sad that these activities were all curtailed by his advancing illness. We will miss him as we salute his exceptional scientific accomplishments.

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Dr. von Boehmer was elected by the AAI Council to AAI Honorary Membership in 1992. He was an AAI Distinguished Lecturer in 2000 and a major symposium speaker at the 2004 and 2009 AAI meetings. Dr. von Boehmer was an author on 14 papers published in The Journal of Immunology between 1973 and 2009, including his invited Pillars of Immunology commentary, “Shaping the T Cell Repertoire,” The Journal of Immunology 175 (11): 7067–7068 (2005).

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