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Dr. Warren Zapol, anesthesiologist whose research discoveries saved lives, dies at 79

Antarctic expeditions earned him the moniker ‘Dr. Adventure’

Dr. Warren Zapol in Antarctica with his wife, Nikki. A researcher whose discoveries about the benefits of inhaled nitric oxide are credited with saving countless lives, Dr. Zapol died Dec. 14 of complications from lung cancer that was diagnosed in 2015. He was 79 and lived in Cambridge.Zapol Family

On research trips to Antarctica, some 9,000 miles from his work as an anesthesiologist at Massachusetts General Hospital, Dr. Warren M. Zapol studied Weddell seals to see if their unusual talents could be adapted to help humans.

While seeking prey during deep dives beneath the ice, a Weddell seal can hold its breath for more than an hour and slow its heartbeat. In his research, Dr. Zapol compared the seals’ “diving reflex” to the breathing pattern of a human fetus, telling the Globe that “we’re essentially diving creatures for the first nine months of our lives.”

“I’ve spent my life wondering about these creatures,” said Dr. Zapol, who traveled to Antarctica so many times that a glacier there now bears his name.

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A researcher whose discoveries about the benefits of inhaled nitric oxide are credited with saving countless lives, Dr. Zapol died Dec. 14 of complications from lung cancer that was diagnosed in 2015. He was 79 and lived in Cambridge.

Anesthetist in chief at MGH from 1994 to 2008, Dr. Zapol was sometimes called “Dr. Adventure” for his distant expeditions, but his inhaled nitric oxide breakthroughs had the most far-reaching impact on patients.

“Warren’s discovery and demonstration that nitric oxide is a highly effective therapy for pulmonary hypertension in newborns and in adults is one of the most significant achievements in recent intensive care medicine history,” Dr. Emery N. Brown, a director of the Harvard-MIT Health Sciences and Technology program, said in a statement.

Dr. Zapol, who was part of the HST faculty, showed that for those who can’t get enough oxygen due to high blood pressure in blood vessels leading to the lungs, inhaled nitric oxide can be targeted to relax and open those constricted passageways.

In infants, such oxygen difficulties are known as blue baby syndrome. In 1990, a team of doctors tried Dr. Zapol’s procedure on blue babies at MGH, he said in a 2016 interview with a hospital publication.

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“The babies just turned pink before our eyes,” he said. “And over time, they remained pink.”

Dr. Zapol also had led laboratory and clinical programs in extracorporeal membrane oxygenation, or ECMO, and his influence on researchers he mentored was just as lasting.

At a memorial gathering in December, Dr. Lorenzo Berra, who worked with him at MGH’s Anesthesia Center for Critical Care Research, described how Dr. Zapol would begin what was known as the “Zapol lab meeting” by describing “something beautiful that happened to him.”

Dr. Zapol might praise the accomplishments of his current or former lab researchers or “recount the perfection of violin notes he had just heard a few days before” at a Boston Symphony Orchestra performance.

“By sharing something that moved him, Dr. Zapol filled us with wonder at the start of each lab meeting,” Berra said. “While talking, he was leading us in his scientific journey as well as in his human journey towards untapped areas of research and towards the beyond, the infinite.”

Jessica Meir, a NASA astronaut who had worked in Dr. Zapol’s lab, said that “the time he made for mentees and students and fostering them is really a big deal. You kind of need someone who has the ability to think outside the box to make those great leaps.”

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Dr. Zapol, she added, “was so passionate about advancing medicine for all of humankind. He put all his effort into that — making the world a better place.”

Born in New York City on March 16, 1942, Warren Myron Zapol’s birth name was Michael Warshaw.

His birth mother, Millie, was a Russian immigrant who died of high blood pressure and a stroke two days after his birth. His father, Nathan, decided he couldn’t take care of his newborn son, whom he let a neighboring family adopt.

Ben and Florence Zapol gave their name to Dr. Zapol, who was 36 when he learned he had been adopted. He grew up as an only child in a Brooklyn, N.Y., household where Florence was a schoolteacher and Ben worked in the watch business and real estate.

He graduated from Stuyvesant High School and was 16½ when he arrived at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, his burgeoning interest in the wider world spurred by his ham radio interests in high school and college.

“Speaking around the world, making friends around the world, hearing signals from God knows where became a very important thing to this 13-year-old,” he said during oral history interviews with his daughter, Liza, who lives in Brooklyn.

Skipping MIT’s 1962 commencement, Dr. Zapol and a few friends traveled to England and set off to drive from Europe to India. “Unfortunately I contracted malaria, probably in northern Iran,” he told his daughter, adding that he “lost maybe 20 or 30 pounds, and was sick as a dog.”

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In Pakistan, a nun who had trained at Harvard Medical School treated him, a life-saving experience that helped him decide to pursue medicine.

Returning home, he attended Boston University School of Medicine and then transferred to the University of Rochester School of Medicine, from which he graduated in 1966.

After residency at MGH, a surgical internship at what was then Boston City Hospital, and research training at the National Institutes of Health, Dr. Zapol joined what is now MGH’s department of anesthesia, critical care, and pain medicine.

He also was the Reginald Jenney distinguished professor of anesthesia at Harvard Medical School.

Through a friend, Dr. Zapol met Nikki Kaplan in 1967, and they married the following year.

“I thought he was very handsome,” she said in their daughter’s oral history interviews, which are housed at Harvard’s Center for the History of Medicine.

“I thought he was very smart,” Nikki said of their first meeting, adding with a laugh: “Well, first time I laid eyes on him, I thought, ‘Not bad.’ "

She is a lawyer and had been a senior attorney in the office of the general counsel for Partners HealthCare.

“Work was play for Warren, a lifelong quest for pieces in the puzzle of mammalian breathing. He always had his eye on the goal: healing damaged lungs,” Nikki said. “He had a magnetic passion for his work, and brought me, our children and grandchildren, and countless colleagues and students into the fun and excitement of a world with no geographical or intellectual boundaries.”

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Dr. Zapol “lived fiercely and passed on to us many gifts,” their son, David of San Francisco, said in a eulogy.

“His passion was always rooted in fact. It had to be, because that passion led us out on the glaciers, up to the mountain tops, and under the sea,” said David, who accompanied his father on some Antarctic research trips. “He loved to think on the scale of model trains, the field of medicine, life on earth, and the cosmos.”

In addition to his wife, daughter, and son, Dr. Zapol leaves three grandchildren.

“My father was brilliant, mischievous, and a natural teacher,” Liza wrote in an e-mail. “There was rarely a topic he didn’t know something about, and he always had facts of all kinds up his sleeve.”

He even had a few thoughts about how his namesake Zapol Glacier in Antarctica might fare during climate change.

“Even by Antarctic standards, it’s remote,” he told the Globe in 2008.

By the time climate change’s melting effects reach Zapol Glacier, “seas will rise so much that Boston will be in the Berkshires,” Dr. Zapol said. “It’s a worry, global warming is for real, but since the glacier lies so far south, I think it’s going to outlast me.”


Bryan Marquard can be reached at bryan.marquard@globe.com.