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Noted UCSF researcher Robert Ockner was former Reed schools trustee


Dr. Robert Keith Ockner, a noted researcher in diseases of the liver at the University of California at San Francisco and a former member and president of the Reed Union School District board, died Sept. 26 at his home in Southern California after a short illness. He was 86.


Dr. Ockner, who lived in Tiburon for more than 40 years, was emeritus professor of medicine in UCSF’s division of gastroenterology. Among his most notable discoveries were the intracellular fatty acid-binding proteins in the intestine.


Born July 30, 1936, in New Kensington, Pa., to Lee Ockner and Sara Elinor Weis Ockner, Dr. Ockner moved to Southern California when he was 6 with his mother and brother after his father died.


He graduated from Los Angeles High School and went on to attend Pomona College, where he received his bachelor’s degree in 1957. He went back to the East Coast and earned his medical degree from Harvard University in 1961.


While a medical student, he worked with Dr. Rudi Schmid on a project investigating the occurrence of porphyria, a group of liver disorders, in humans and rodents from fungicide at the time commonly used on wheat. That work led to Dr. Ockner’s first publication in the journal Nature and a job offer.


He completed his residency in internal medicine at the Harvard Medical Unit at Boston City Hospital and did a fellowship in gastroenterology at the National Institutes of Arthritis and Metabolic Diseases, part of the National Institutes of Health, in Washington, D.C., where he studied lipid metabolism.


Dr. Ockner and his family came west in 1968, settling in Tiburon a year later, and joined the UCSF faculty in the gastroenterology division, rapidly rising to full professor. With his sons in local schools, he took an interest in volunteer service and was first elected to the Reed Union School District board of trustees in 1973, serving two four-year terms and doing a turn as the board’s president in 1975.


He was awarded the Western Gastroenterological Society’s Research Prize in 1980 and served as editor-in-chief of Gastroenterology, the field’s major journal, from 1981 to 1986.


In 1983 he became both the gastroenterology division chief for UCSF — serving through 1990 during a period of growth and innovation that included the establishment of the school’s liver-transplant program — and the director of UCSF’s Liver Center at Moffitt Hospital, funded by the National Institutes of Health, through 1998.


In the interim, Dr. Ockner served as president of the American Association for the Study of Liver Diseases in 1984.


He mentored many future leaders in gastroenterology and hepatology.


“All recall his understated qualities of patience, kindness, thoughtfulness and supportive guidance,” said Jonathan Terdiman, the current gastroenterology chief, and Bob Wachter, chair of the department of medicine, in a joint statement in an obituary posted at the UCSF website.


Regarded as an astute, dedicated and compassionate clinician and educator, Dr. Ockner’s main passion was scientific inquiry and writing. He published 94 journal articles based on his and his team’s research in the field of lipid and lipoprotein metabolism. He also was consulting editor for the digestive diseases section of the 19th and 20th editions of the Cecil Textbook of Medicine. He was a Fellow of the American Association for the Study of Liver Diseases.


He closed his research career with the publication of his 2004 monograph, “Integration of Metabolism, Energetics and Signal Transduction: Unifying Foundations in Cell Growth and Death, Cancer, Atherosclerosis and Alzheimer Disease,” in which he presented a “beautifully reasoned hypotheses concerning the pathogenesis of several important diseases,” according to Terdiman and Wachter.


They also described Dr. Ockner as a scientist who was “brimming with ideas, deep knowledge and a unique appreciation of the influence of cellular metabolic pathways on disease processes.”


Considered a fine cellist, he performed with several community orchestras in his free time, including the College of Marin orchestra. He and his second wife, Elaine Fishman Lang, a professional pianist and composer, met through music. They often performed together in retirement centers and for friends, according to his son Matt Ockner of Tiburon.


They moved to Orange County about 2010.


Besides his wife, Elaine, Dr. Ockner is survived by three sons from his first marriage to Patty Gammon Ockner, now of Bend, Ore.: Jim Ockner of Bend, Matt Ockner of Tiburon and Peter Ockner of Terra Linda; four nephews, Lee, Sam, Ben and Dan Ockner; and eight grandchildren. His brother, Dr. Stephen Ockner, predeceased him.


Donations in his memory may be sent to the UCSF Foundation, P.O. Box 45339, San Francisco, CA 94145-0339. Write “In memory of Dr. Robert Ockner/Fund B7688” on the memo line. Funds will be used to support its gastrointestinal division fellowship program.


Reach Tiburon reporter Deirdre McCrohan at 415-944-4634.

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