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Norman Krinsky 1928-2008

Norman Krinsky, PhD, known as the father of modern carotenoid research and admired for his kindness and sense of humor, died November 28, 2008, at the age of 80 from complications related to leukemia.1

Born in Michigan and raised in Chicago, Dr. Krinsky earned his bachelor’s and master’s degrees in science, followed by a doctorate in biochemistry, from the University of Southern California. Beginning in the 1950s, he blazed a trail in the scientific research of carotenoids, which are naturally-occurring pigments essential for plant growth and photosynthesis and are a main dietary source of vitamin A in humans.2

Dr. Krinsky’s contributions set significant and lasting precedents and led to many advances in biochemistry, cell biology, and animal and human nutrition.3 His work includes research on the action of carotenoids as vitamin A precursors, beta-carotene, and lycopene, as well as the demonstration of carotenoids’ role in nutrition and as antioxidants.

“He really laid the foundation for carotenoid research by providing an understanding of how they are absorbed and metabolized and act as antioxidants,” said Jeffrey Blumberg, PhD, director of the Antioxidants Research Laboratory at the Jean Mayer USDA Human Nutrition Research Center on Aging and a professor at Tufts University (oral communication, January 9, 2009).

Dr. Krinsky was a professor emeritus of biochemistry at Tufts University School of Medicine, where he taught in the pharmacology and biochemistry departments for 40 years.4 It was here that Dr. Blumberg met him when their respective interests in antioxidants and carotenoids brought the two together almost 30 years ago.

“[It was] an honor and a privilege to be collaborating with one of the best minds and nicest people in the field of antioxidant nutrition. It was always interesting to note that no matter how busy or noisy or chaotic the lab meeting or the seminar or the conference or the workshop, when Norman slightly raised his hand or quietly nodded his head to make a comment, everyone stopped to pay attention and listen to what he said,” said Dr. Blumberg (e-mail, January 6, 2009).

One of Dr. Krinsky’s numerous important pieces of work, according to Dr. Blumberg, was a study that determined why beta-carotene supplements were found in 2 large clinical trials to increase the incidence of lung cancer (oral communication, January 9, 2009). Dr. Krinsky and fellow researchers found that in heavy lifelong smokers, beta-carotene was metabolized differently than in healthy people, changing it from a health-promoting agent to a potentially toxic one.

“Though Norman’s research focused on the molecular and biochemical mechanisms of carotenoid actions within the cell, his efforts fundamentally enhanced our understanding of how these phytonutrients can promote health and reduce the risk of chronic disease,” said Dr. Blumberg.

In another of his many significant achievements, Dr. Krinsky and fellow researchers discovered that the ratio of beta-carotene to vitamin A molecules differed depending on the food source.1 This showed that different foods had differing bio-availabilities of nutrients, i.e., the extent to which a substance is absorbed by a specific tissue. These findings influenced the World Health Organization’s recommended daily allowance of antioxidants for consumption. It also helped mold strategies for improving vitamin deficiencies in third world countries.

According to Rob Russell, MD, professor emeritus at the Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy of Tufts University, the global impact of Dr. Krinsky’s work shows that he will not only leave a legacy at Tufts, where he spent almost his whole career, but he will also continue to be remembered and respected worldwide (oral communication, January 9, 2009).

Though Dr. Krinsky was very well known for his massive contributions to the area of carotenoid research, he is equally remembered for his personality.

“Norman occupied a special place in the minds and hearts of his colleagues: it is impossible to find anyone who knew him that did not love and admire him,” wrote Lester Packer in Dr. Krinsky’s obituary for The Oxygen Club of California.3

Dr. Russell, who knew Dr. Krinsky for about 27 years and worked with him in a lab group, said he was a very pleasant person with whom to collaborate.

“He was an extremely kind person who always had a great sense of humor and a real twinkle in his eye all the time,” said Dr. Russell.

The two friends spent time together outside of the professional realm, going to movies and concerts. Dr. Krinsky loved the composer Gustav Mahler, Russell said, and often traveled to other cities just to hear his pieces played.

Elizabeth Johnson, PhD, a research scientist and assistant professor at Tufts, recalled the day she met Dr. Krinsky about 20 years ago (oral communication, January 13, 2009). Then a recent college graduate, Johnson didn’t know what to expect.

“To me he was like a god, you know,” she said. “He was like ‘Dr. Carotenoid.’”

After walking into his office and calling him Dr. Krinsky, he immediately told her to call him Norman. This, she said, exemplifies how Dr. Krinsky treated others with kindness and put people at ease by eliminating any intimidation factor.

Dr. Krinsky’s interest in interpersonal connection lasted into the final months of his life. Unlike many people facing death, he could talk freely with others about his situation.

“What impressed me greatly is that when he had this bad diagnosis, he never flinched,” said Dr. Russell. “He faced it. He joined support groups [for people] with the same disease. He faced dying with an enormous amount of courage.”

Dr. Krinsky is survived by Susan, his wife of 48 years, his daughter Lisa, his son Adam, and 2 grandchildren.3

—Lindsay Stafford


  1. Brett R. Norman Krinsky; helped redefine diet guidelines across globe. The Boston Globe. December 10, 2008.

  2. Carotenoids. International Carotenoid Society Web site. Available at: Accessed January 14, 2009.

  3. Norman I. Krinsky. Oxygen Club of California Web site. Available at: Accessed January 27, 2009.

  4. FDA Food Advisory Committee Memberships, Curriculum Vitae, Norman I. Krinsky, PhD. US Food and Drug Administration Web site. Available at: Accessed January 27, 2009.