An Unsung Hero of Free Radical Science – Rebecca Gerschman

Majid Ali, M.D.

The unsung hero of the field of free radical pathobiology is Rebecca Gerschman, a physiologist at the University of Rochester. In the early 1950s, she investigated the relationships between oxygen toxicity and the adrenal gland, and proposed that oxygen toxicity was mediated by free radicals.4-7It is peculiar that Gerschman’s seminal contributions escaped the notice of most researchers and writers interested in the energetic-molecular basis of health and disease. She observed that adrenalectomy protected rats from oxygen toxicity. She was aware of a 1934 report of Ozorio de Almeida,8 which documented the histological similarity between testicular tissue injury caused by ionizing radiation and oxygen toxicity. Gerschman also knew of the universal theory of Michaelis,9 which held that free radicals were intermediates in oxidation processes. Examining the effect of adrenalectomy on certain types of acutely injured tissues, she observed that the procedure

exerted protective effects and deduced that adrenalectomy slowed the metabolic rate and consequently reduced the need for oxygen-driven reactions. Considering her findings in the larger context of the earlier work of de Almeida and Michaelis, she concluded that oxygen toxicity was mediated by free radicals.

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