Stony Brook University Professor Arthur Grollman in a lab at...

Stony Brook University Professor Arthur Grollman in a lab at Stony Brook University Hospital in 2013. Credit: Newsday / J. Conrad Williams Jr.

It was just like pharmacologist Arthur Grollman to read an article about a major cancer mystery in the Balkans, then declare to his wife they would go there for R&R — rest and research.

He saved lives with his thirst to solve grand and small medical questions, family and colleagues said. His optimism and uber organizing were like petri dishes that grew “tour-de-force studies” and “dream team consortiums of labs,” scientists said. He was an expert on herbal supplements, and officials from Congress to countries abroad also tapped his knowledge on cancer-related DNA damage and repair.

But what Grollman considered his legacy was his pandemic reboot of a much-forgotten drug, emetine — the pills ready for coronavirus trials the day he died of heart failure on Feb. 17 at age 89.

“His legacy is ensured, but his legacy would be even more robust if he didn’t have the burden of being so far ahead of his time,” said chemist Ken Breslauer, a Rutgers University distinguished professor who worked with Grollman. “Many of the discoveries he made will have to wait decades to be picked up on.”

A Setauket resident, Grollman was working at Stony Brook University as director of the Zickler Laboratory of Chemical Biology. He was the founding chairman of its pharmacological sciences department from 1974 to 2000.

In a project that caught the interest of the National Institutes of Health, a multidisciplinary team led by Grollman proved emetine’s ability to block protein formation killed viruses, which have protein coats that help them attach to cells. He had studied the anti-parasitic drug in 1966, but its use was limited because it sometimes led to heart failure. However, his team found a safe dose for the heart, colleagues said, and Grollman’s connections in Nepal launched an experimental trial on Monday with FDA and NIH standards, bypassing the long federal wait for testing approval.

Grollman hoped emetine could one day be the cure for other viral infections, researchers said.

“Arthur, in many ways similar to Steve Jobs of Apple fame, projected a reality distortion field that caused everyone working with him as well as anyone standing between him and his goals to come to believe that whatever impossible task he had in mind was possible,” Mike Frohman, Stony Brook’s pharmacological sciences chairman, wrote in a tribute. “Arthur drove himself and everyone else to excel.”

Grown scientists could feel a frisson of nervousness at the thought of Grollman passing by in the hallway and asking “What more do we know today that we didn’t know yesterday?” Breslauer said with a laugh.

But Grollman’s persistence 20 years ago led to a result with global implications. His research team traced the Balkans’ high kidney and urinary cancer rates to a chemical compound in the birthwort plant, growing in the wheat fields harvested to make bread. Grollman warned the global community about the plant, which grows worldwide and is frequently used in folk and traditional medicines.

His award-filled career might never have happened. He wanted to be a lawyer, until he spent a summer with his father at an Oxford University medical program in England, said his wife, Annette Grollman, of Setauket. His father was a well-known kidney disease researcher and his mother a teacher who convinced Black friends to sit with her at lunch counters during segregation, family members said.

He got a bachelor’s degree in chemistry in 1955 from the University of California at Berkeley, where he played piano in bars for money, before getting his medical degree from Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine in 1959.

An outdoors lover, he started scaling mountains 50 years ago, from Mount Kilimanjaro in Tanzania to the Andes, to join his avid climber son, Michael Grollman, of Scottsdale, Arizona.

“His longest expedition was a trek across Afghanistan and Pakistan, a trip of nearly 500 miles on camel and on foot, and in his telling, dodging the Taliban the whole way,” the son said.

Climbing in the Himalayas, he learned about the Tibetans’ plight. In one of several efforts to help, Grollman created a university program that supports one Tibetan student annually in college.

“He was an adventurer, whether it was for life’s mysteries or life’s abundance,” Annette Grollman said.

Besides his wife and son, he is also survived by two other sons, David Grollman, of San Diego, and Stephen Grollman, of Plano, Texas; and a sister, Catherine Lauritsen, of Cheney, Washington. His first two wives, Joyce Grollman and Lorraine Grollman, died before him.

A service was held Feb. 20 at Shalom Memorial Chapels in Smithtown, followed by cremation. A celebration of his life has been scheduled for 9 a.m. May 11 at the university’s Laufer Center.

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