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With 77 years at NIH, scientist was ‘last living voice’ of center’s early years

Herbert Tabor began working at NIH in 1943.

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By BART BARNES | The Washington Post | Published: September 29, 2020

Herbert Tabor, a leading scientific investigator at the National Institutes of Health whose 77 years of service made him the longest-serving employee at the medical research center and among the longest-serving in the federal workforce, died Aug. 20 at his home on the NIH campus in Bethesda, Md. He was 101.

The cause was respiratory failure, said a son, Edward Tabor, who added that his father — employed at NIH since 1943 — never spoke of retiring.

He was “the world’s foremost authority on the enzymatic pathways of polyamines,” said Michael Gottesman, an NIH deputy director, in announcing Tabor’s death.

Polyamines are “molecules essential to the cellular growth and rigor of most life on earth,” a NIH spokesman said. Tabor studied “how the body makes polyamines and how they affect protein production, energy production and human reproduction.”

The NIH death announcement described him as the “last living voice” of the formative years of the National Institutes of Health. Since 1949 he had lived in a three-bedroom, brick duplex on the grounds, where his four children grew up. Bethesda was a small town in those years. Abutting the home was a wooded area where children played and sometimes found Indian arrowheads.

It was a 10-minute walk to his laboratory and, often after dinner, Tabor returned to his lab for a few more hours of work. He had few, if any, hobbies other than science.

Herbert Tabor was born in New York City on Nov. 28, 1918. His father was a businessman, his mother a homemaker.

He graduated from Harvard University in 1937 and from Harvard Medical School in 1941. His graduate-school professors urged him to forgo a career in clinical practice and instead do research in biochemistry.

As an intern at Yale New Haven Hospital in 1942, he participated in the first major clinical trial for penicillin, NIH said. “I performed the actual injection,” he told the Annual Review of Biochemistry in 1999. “The patient had severe streptococcal septicemia with a persistently elevated temperature. Even though the dose of penicillin use was minimal by current standards, the therapeutic effect was dramatic, resulting in a rapid and permanent fall in temperature to normal.”

The drug would become crucial in the medical treatment of military personnel during World War II.

Early in 1943 Tabor joined the U.S. Public Health Service and was assigned as medical officer aboard the Coast Guard Cutter Duane, which was escorting North Atlantic ship convoys. In a battle with a German submarine, the Duane rescued American and enemy casualties and Tabor helped provide the medical care.

In 1946, he married Celia White, who became a biochemical researcher at NIH. She retired in 2005 and died in 2012.

Survivors include four children, Edward Tabor of Bethesda, Stanley Tabor of Brookline, Mass., twins Marilyn Tabor of Cambridge, Mass., and Richard Tabor of Moss Beach, Calif.; 10 grandchildren; and six great-grandchildren.

The Tabors received awards from the Chemical Society of Washington and the American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology. For 40 years, Tabor was the editor in chief of the Journal of Biological Chemistry and guided its transition to online publication.

Tabor gradually began to tire after age 100 and pulled back from daily work in his laboratory. But, according to his son Edward, he had so much leave accumulated he remained on the NIH staff until his death.