Emeritus Professor of Physiology Heinz Valtin Dies at 93

Heinz Valtin, MD, emeritus professor of physiology, died at his home in Alexandria, VA, on October 11. He was 93 years old. (Valley News obituary)

He joined the Physiology Department of Dartmouth Medical School (now Geisel School of Medicine) in 1957, eventually holding two honorary chairs, including the Andrew C. Vail Memorial Professor of Physiology, and was chair of the department from 1977–1988.

James Strickler, MD, emeritus professor of medicine and of community and family medicine, and dean of the medical school from 1973–1981, first met Valtin while both were medical students at Cornell Medical School. Of his lifelong friend, Strickler says, “Heinz’s wise, private counsel to me, on more than one occasion when I was dean, saved my sanity. I am grateful—he was a mensch.”

Heinz Valtin, MD

Recounting Valtin’s considerable impact at Dartmouth, Strickler says, “Heinz was a highly respected, influential physician, teacher, and scholar in medicine and physiology who was also extremely well-liked by students and faculty. He had an extraordinary ability to skillfully persuade colleagues to reason creatively and effect progressive changes.”

Often described as one of the last of a generation of gentlemen scientists, for whom humanity, kindness, and generous spirit were as important as being a successful scientist, Valtin believed scientists had an obligation to train the next generation of researchers.

“Among my memories of Heniz Valtin is his influence on me as a departmental chair, mentor, and colleague, and the joy he displayed as a researcher and teacher,” recalls Robert Maue, PhD, a professor of medical education and of biochemistry.

“Heinz had a sincere interest in the broad discipline of physiology, exemplified by the fact that as an endocrinologist and renal physiologist he was actively involved in early efforts to recruit more neuroscientists to Dartmouth Medical School. Heinz was a very supportive colleague who asked about my research and expressed a sincere interest in what I was doing—he was a mentor who helped develop my lab, research program, and teaching skills.”

A recognized expert in renal physiology, Valtin spent more than 40 years at Dartmouth studying the biological mechanisms that regulate the balance of water in our bodies—his pioneering observations on the actions of the hormone vasopressin on water regulation in the kidney still influences renal physiology research.

One of his significant breakthroughs in understanding renal function came in the early 1960s when he and Dartmouth colleagues, Kurt Benirschke, MD and Hilda Sokol, PhD, successfully bred the Brattleboro Rat—a hooded rat with hereditary diabetes insipidus, an uncommon disease that causes an imbalance in body fluids leading to excessive thirst and large urine output. Studying this kidney malfunction in the rats advanced medical knowledge of normal renal function.

Now many generations old, the Brattleboro Rat is still a widely used model in endocrine and renal research.

“I have incorporated the use of these rats in the laboratory sessions of a physiology course I am currently teaching to Dartmouth undergraduates,” Maue adds. “When telling my students about the local origin and initial studies of these rats at Dartmouth in the 1960s, there is a sense of satisfaction knowing this has come full circle. That the rats are still being used today by scientists who are interested in endocrine influences on the brain and behavior is something I think Heinz would be pleased to see.”

Revered as a teacher who possessed warmth, generosity, and a deep understanding of the selflessness required to nurture young scientists, Valtin was committed to helping them launch their own independent careers.

“Heinz was a wonderful mentor to me, and I owe much to his kind and generous counsel as I wended my way through an unfamiliar career in physiology,” recalls Andy Daubenspeck, PhD, emeritus professor of physiology and neurobiology.

“My training had been in biomedical engineering, which put me in the position of being somewhat of an outsider in the realm of physiology—but he made a career at Dartmouth seem plausible and encouraged me to stay when options arose elsewhere. I am forever grateful for what he did for me and for our department—he valued diverse opinions and maintained a spirit of cooperation and great collegiality in our department, which I look upon fondly. He was truly a class act.”

The author of three textbooks on the kidneys and water balance—translated into several languages—were widely used by medical schools both in the U.S. and abroad and for many years were the standard texts for the teaching of health and disease in the kidney.

“Heinz was clear and succinct in his thinking and writing about the complexities of renal physiology and acid base balance. In the classroom these qualities were combined with an open earnestness that captivated students—he needed no gimmicks,” says Eugene Nattie, MD. “He also loved opera, having season tickets to the Wagner Festival at Bayreuth, which he once shared once with me—an experience I'll never forget. He was a straight shooter and an honest and effective department leader. Above all he was a devoted family man.”

Donald Bartlett, MD, emeritus professor of physiology and neurobiology, recalls a man he knew as a teacher, department chair, colleague, and friend. “He was outstanding in all of those roles.”

In one of his final publications, an invited review published in 2002 by the American Journal of Physiology, Valtin debunked the widely held belief that one should drink at least eight 8-oz glasses of water per day. He found no supporting evidence to back up the popular recommendation. And thought the article received immediate and worldwide attention, somewhat to his chagrin, the unsubstantiated recommendation persists.

Valtin met his great love and future wife, Nancy Heffernan, while both were undergraduates at Swarthmore College. During their 63 years of marriage, they shared a life of music, art, and travel, before she died in 2015. He is survived by his two children, Tom and Alison, and three grandchildren, Leah and Tommy Valtin-Erwin and Jamie Valtin.