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John Gergely, 94; cofounded biomedical research lab

John Gergely and colleagues tried to increase knowledge about the way the human muscular system works.

John Gergely and colleagues tried to increase knowledge about the way the human muscular system works.

At 4 p.m. on Friday afternoons, a group of muscle research scientists would step away from their laboratory work areas and, as part of a weekly tradition, gather to feast on snacks.

Dr. John Gergely initiated the idea of a “goodies” break. He and his colleagues at the Boston Biomedical Research Institute took turns bringing cookies and pastries, which they shared while discussing their complex work and pushing one another to think more deeply about the challenges it posed.

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“It trained everyone in critical thinking, and I think that’s very important for scientists,” said Albert Wang, a former colleague who now is a research associate professor of physiology and biophysics at the Boston University Medical Campus.

As director of the institute, Dr. Gergely helped bring together scientists who were at the forefront of muscle research, trying to understand what causes muscle disease and, more generally, to understand the workings of the muscular system.

Dr. Gergely, who also was a fellow of the Biophysical Society, died July 26 in the Kaplan Family Hospice House in Danvers of complications from pneumonia. He was 94.

“My father was always dedicated to the science,” said his son John Jr. of Huntington, Vt. “He just loved the science and the discovery process and never had an interest in commercializing his work.”

He was “very unique in the sense that very few people really focused on muscle research and he was one of the few who did this very well and focused on that field,” said Dr. Endre A. Balazs. The two, who had been friends since childhood, cofounded the Boston Biomedical Research Institute in 1968.

Dr. Gergely’s early research helped reveal key details about troponin, a complex of three proteins found in cardiac and skeletal muscles. The research showed that elevated levels of the protein were often a sign of an imminent heart attack, which led to more rapid detection.

“He not only did his own research on muscle protein, what he did was more important: He got together a group of smart people who were interested in all aspects of how muscles contract and all aspects of biochemistry,” said Dr. Paul D. Allen, a former colleague who is now a professor emeritus at Harvard Medical School and former senior physician at Brigham and Women’s Hospital.

His legacy, Allen added, “comes from the people he trained and the people he supported.”

Dr. Gergely’s office was filled with piles of scientific journals and books, but he wanted research presented in an organized fashion. Much of his work as a mentor, Wang said, involved helping younger scientists learn how to write well enough to explain complicated science in a clear, concise manner.

“He always managed to get everybody in place and to resolve all the conflicts,” Wang said.

Born in Budapest, Dr. Gergely was raised Lutheran, but as the Nazis began sending Jews to concentration camps, word got out that his family had converted to Christianity and were of Jewish heritage.

Along with his father, Dr. Gergely was brought to a detention center in Budapest, and was released. A medical student at the time, he was called upon to treat those wounded in the war.

While living in Budapest, Dr. Gergely married Nora Czoboly in 1945.

He continued his studies and graduated with a medical degree from the University of Budapest, and while there met Albert Szent-Gyorgyi, a Nobel laureate who was head of the biochemistry department. Szent-Gyorgyi became Dr. Gergely’s mentor and helped him move to England in 1946 to study at the University of Leeds.

Through his affiliation with Szent-Gyorgyi, Dr. Gergely honed his interest in what would become his field of research.

“But certainly I wouldn’t have become interested in muscle had it not been for the work that I actually became aware of just at the right time, when this was quite the new thing,” he recalled in a 2004 interview with the National Library of Medicine at the National Institutes of Health. “I mean for many years this was a very lucky thing for many of us. This was a fairly unbounded field for many years. But it did attract a lot of people over the years and eventually led to its development.”

He graduated from the University of Leeds with a doctorate in biochemistry and moved to the United States in 1949. He took a position at the National Institutes of Health and settled with his family in Bethesda, Md.

Shortly after arriving, he received a job at the University of Wisconsin’s enzyme institute, where he worked for about a year. In 1951, he was offered a research position at Massachusetts General Hospital and the family moved to Nahant.

He began as a biochemist in the neurology department and then became an associate professor in the department of biological chemistry and molecular pharmacology at Harvard Medical School.

Dr. Gergely received a fellow of the Biophysical Society award in 2003.

In the 1960s, he and Balazs decided to form the Boston Biomedical Research Institute, which opened in 1968. Dr. Gergely was a senior scientist and later director at the institute, heading up the muscle research division. The institute, which had moved to Watertown, dissolved last year.

In addition to his wife, Nora, and son John Jr., Dr. Gergely leaves two other sons, Peter of Highland Falls, N.Y., and Andrew of Owings, Md.; five daughters, Sophia of Pelham, Katherine Pessin of Hamilton, Julia Bate of Los Angeles, Martha of Ventura, Calif., and Anna McGowan of Garrison, N.Y.; 12 grandchildren; and seven great-grandchildren.

A memorial service will be held at 10 a.m. on Sept. 28 in Clifton Lutheran Church in Marblehead.

Dr. Gergely went into semi-retirement when his health began to fail, but continued to send e-mails to a core list of a few dozen scientists, highlighting articles he had read.

“He was just a wonderful and caring guy,” said Mary Caulfield, his longtime secretary.

To better bond with scientific communities abroad, Dr. Gergely taught himself languages, including Russian and Japanese, his family said.

“He was a mentor, he was a organizer, he was an incredible guy, and he made a huge mark on the muscle science,” Allen said.

Emma Stickgold can be reached at estickgoldobits@gmail.com.

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