Dr. Richard Landau couldn’t stand pretension or boasting.
So when a colleague decorated the walls of their shared office with awards and honors, “He came in the next day and hung up his high-school diploma,” said his son-in-law, Democratic political strategist David Axelrod.
And, after receiving a “scathing” note from a dean with whom he tussled at the University of Chicago, “My father-in-law had that letter framed and had that put on the wall, too.”
A professor of medicine who helped build the university’s endocrinology unit into a renowned department, Dr. Landau died Wednesday at Montgomery Place in Hyde Park. He was 99.
He was known for being pointed. When she was a girl, his daughter, Susan Axelrod, kept asking him what kind of doctor he was.
“I’m a good one,” he replied.
His younger brother, Dr. William Landau, described the St. Louis neighborhood where they grew up in an interview with the American Academy of Neurology. Their home was near “an apartment building where Tennessee Williams lived for a while with his sister who had a [glass menagerie] — his most important play,” he said. St. Louis Cardinals owner Sam Breadon was a neighbor.
Their maternal grandfather did much of the construction for the 1904 St. Louis World’s Fair, according to Dr. William Landau. Their mother, Amelia, marched to get women the right to vote, chaired a chapter of the ACLU, and hosted social worker Jane Addams at the Landau home. Their father, Milton, headed a linen-rental company.
As a boy, Richard loved the 1926 Paul de Kruif book, “Microbe Hunters,” which influenced generations of kids to view scientists as heroes. He earned a medical degree at Washington University. In 1940 he arrived at the University of Chicago, where he worked with Allan Kenyon, who demonstrated links between testosterone and muscle development.
“Over the next three decades he carefully built the endocrine section into one of the top five programs in the nation, with world-renowned faculty in diabetes, thyroid, adrenal and pituitary disorders,” said Dr. Samuel Refetoff, a professor of medicine at the university.
“His work led to drugs that are still used today to treat high blood pressure and heart failure,” said Dr. Edward Ehrlich, a professor emeritus at the University of Wisconsin.
At the university, he was transfixed by a smart, attractive secretary, Claire Schmuckel, who later wrote for the Chicago Sun and became a respected medical editor. They married in 1944.
Soon after the wedding, he was sent to the Pacific theater in World War II to serve as an Army doctor. In a memoir, he recalled a unique collaboration between indigenous people and the military on an island of Papua New Guinea. The locals easily spotted schools of fish, and the GIs, sick of tinned food, gave them dynamite so they could blast the bounty and share it.
Though sometimes described as abrasive, Dr. Landau was kind to patients and fledgling colleagues. “It was just a reflection of his absolute, complete honesty,” Ehrlich said.
“He had compassion for everyday people, the patients,” said David Axelrod, a CNN political analyst and director of the university’s Institute of Politics. “It was the high and mighty he delighted in challenging.”
Dr. Landau did that when his bank decreed that customers would have to get photo IDs from the institution. He was affronted–he’d been a patron for decades. “He refused to have his photo taken,” his son-in-law said. He agreed to a photo of an empty chair, “and that became his ID card,” Axelrod said. “They agreed to that. . . .he was tenacious.”
Dr. Landau cleaned and did the marketing when it wasn’t common for men to share in household activities, his daughter said. He loaded the dishwasher with the precision of a scientist seeking to maximize capacity.
He took on more duties during his wife’s decline from a stroke. He cooked, dressed her and did the laundry, Susan Axelrod said. “He remained smitten with her until the day she died” in 2002.
He was remarkably tender with his granddaughter, Lauren Axelrod, whose long struggle with epilepsy caused cognitive impairment. For a time, all three generations lived in Lake Point Tower. She joined him each morning and he prepared her breakfast.
The Landaus endured the deaths of two children. Their 6-year-old son, Thomas, died from meningitis. Another son, James, died of cardiomyopathy at 22.
Some of Dr. Landau’s happiest times involved baseball. He attended three different World Series games: in 1926, between the Cardinals and Yankees; in 1959, between the White Sox and the Dodgers, and a White Sox-Astros match in 2005.
The 2005 game was “a sublime experience,” David Axelrod said. “A 400-lb. guy grabbed my father-in-law and lifted him up in the air” while they both laughed in glee. Axelrod had to tell the man to put Dr. Landau down. “He was almost 90.”
Dr. Landau is also survived by another daughter, Kay Fricke, five grandchildren and a great-granddaughter. A service is planned at a later date.