Alfred J. (Chris) Coulombre, Ph.D., distinguished investigator of ocular morphogenesis, died on July 15, 2012, one month short of turning 90. Demonstrating the true scientist’s respect for his subject matter, Chris Coulombre’s name and his work have influenced generations of students and fellows in the field of experimental biology. Dr. Coulombre began his NIH career in 1961 as head of the Experimental Embryology Section in the National Institute of Neurological Diseases and Blindness (NINDB) and from 1962 to 1967 he was chief of the Laboratory of Neuroanatomical Sciences at NINDB. In 1967, Dr. Coulombre became scientific director of the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development. He later returned to the laboratory and resumed his work on ocular morphogenesis as a member of the Ophthalmology Branch of the NINDB.
With the creation of the National Eye Institute (NEI) in 1968, Dr. Coulombre was recruited as chief of the Section on Experimental Embryology in the Laboratory of Vision Research, a position he held until his retirement in 1982. He received the Friedenwald Award of the Association for Research in Vision and Ophthalmology in 1969, one of the highest honors in vision research.
A tribute written about Dr. Coulombre upon his retirement in the July 1982 issue of the journal Developmental Biology credits him with having developed “a number of techniques which allow perturbation of various developmental interactions in the chick embryo,” producing “exciting new knowledge about retinal, lens, and corneal morphogenesis.” He also “discovered metaplastic induction of feathers and scales in the corneal epithelium of the chick embryo, one of the most dramatic demonstrations of the importance of epithelial-mesenchymal interactions in morphogenesis,” the authors said.
“Being independent-writing his own story-was vintage Chris,” reflected Joram Piatigorsky, Ph.D., former chief of NEI’s Laboratory of Molecular and Developmental Biology, and Dr. Coulombre’s postdoctoral fellow 45 years ago. “He also respected that need in his students, a trait for which I’m especially grateful. In addition to his exemplary high scientific standards, perfectionism and integrity, Chris gave me the opportunity to find my own voice as a scientist as he introduced me to a career in vision research. I suppose in today’s language, he led from behind, modestly and intelligently.”