Charleston native won Nobel Prize

Robert F. Furchgott, a native of Charleston, was awarded the Nobel Prize in Medicine in 1998.

Robert F. Furchgott, a Charleston native who won a Nobel Prize for a discovery that revolutionized the treatment of high blood pressure and heart disease, died last week at age 92.

He was active and alert well into his 90s, according to those who remember him.

Even after he moved into the Bishop Gadsden retirement home at age 88, he would travel each week to the Medical University of South Carolina, where he was a distinguished visiting professor.

A photograph of him receiving the Nobel Prize from the king of Sweden is displayed in Bishop Gadsden's lobby.

He won the Nobel Prize in Medicine in 1998. He discovered the role of nitric oxide in relaxing blood vessels. An obituary in the New York Times cited an expert calling Furchgott's discovery "one of the most important in the history of vascular medicine."

The pharmaceutical company Pfizer capitalized on his research to develop and market Viagra, the popular drug for erectile dysfunction.

Furchgott was born in 1916 in Charleston. His family ran a downtown department store until he was 13. They closed it during the Great Depression and opened another store in Orangeburg, where his mother grew up.

After graduating from Orangeburg High School, Furchgott earned a degree in chemistry from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and a doctorate in biochemistry from Northwestern University.

He taught and researched at Cornell and Washington universities before going to the State University of New York Downstate Medical Center in Brooklyn in 1956. He continued his research there after his retirement in 1989.

He made a breakthrough discovery in what makes blood vessels relax in 1980, and he identified the key molecule as nitric oxide in 1986.

He wrote up some of his research at the Medical University of South Carolina while he was on sabbatical in 1980.

Furchgott developed a love for nature and science in the marshes, woods and beaches around Charleston, he noted in his autobiography on the Nobel Prize Web site. He moved back to Charleston with family in 2002 and moved into Bishop Gadsden in 2004.

Furchgott spent his final year in Seattle with one of his three daughters, Terry Furchgott. He died there May 19.

He was curious about life to the end. He would return home from walks around the lake and start looking up what kinds of ducks he saw there, his daughter told the Seattle newspaper.

His ashes will be returned to Charleston this summer for burial in Beth Elohim's cemetery, according to his nephew, David Furchgott of Washington.

Max Furchgott, the late well-known Charleston photographer, was David Furchgott's father and Robert Furchgott's brother.

Robert Furchgott realized the importance of his research but he never let it change him, David Furchgott said.

"He was a very sweet, gentle man," he said. "He was very understated."