John Oates: A closer look

Seeing beauty in the complexity of wildflowers and clinical pharmacology

Editor’s Note:  This profile, first published in 2005, has been updated.

Leigh MacMillan, Ph.D.
Published: July, 2005

Photo by Dean Dixon
Looking through a camera lens was nothing new for John Oates, M.D., but this time the view was different. As he trained his new macro lens on a Spring Beauty, an ordinary pink and white wildflower that graces woody hillsides and uncultivated front lawns, he was struck by the extraordinary beauty of the magnified flower.

The experience 15-odd years ago sparked him to enroll in a photography course and to add wildflower hunts to his global travels.

“It is certainly true that I’ve had a fascination with the intimate detail of wildflowers—details that elude the view from a distance,” he says during a conversation in his office at Vanderbilt University Medical Center. He’s silent for a long moment before launching into a quote from Henry David Thoreau’s Walden, slowly at first, then with growing confidence.

“The scenery of Walden is on a humble scale, and, though very beautiful, does not approach to grandeur, nor can it much concern one who has not long frequented it or lived by its shore…”

Leaning back in his chair, he’s careful to note that Thoreau’s comment didn’t inspire him, but that it fits.

“What he’s saying is that the beauty isn’t something you spot while driving by—like the Rocky Mountains—it’s only apparent to the people who frequent the shores… to those who become intimately acquainted with it,” Oates says.

Oates frequents the shores—of wildflowers, of biological signaling pathways, of the discipline of clinical pharmacology. He looks closely and sees deeply.

His dossier is thick with achievements: discoveries that shaped the field of research related to biologically active molecules called prostaglandins; activities that built the foundations for the discipline of clinical pharmacology and made its principles central to drug development.

“I think he’s one of the greats of Pharmacology and of American medicine,” says Garret A. FitzGerald, M.D., chair of Pharmacology at the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine.

Now in his mid-70s, John A. Oates, M.D., the Thomas F. Frist Sr. Professor of Medicine at Vanderbilt, could easily choose to relax his intense gaze. But there are too many biological complexities yet to understand, too many wildflowers yet to behold.

Among them: the link between the cyclooxygenase (COX) enzymes—which produce prostaglandins and other products—and Alzheimer’s disease. Oates and his colleagues are trying to understand how acetaminophen and aspirin interact with the COX enzymes to block activity, and why those drugs are more effective in some cell types.

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