In memoriam: Dr. Lee Adair

USF Health is mourning the death of long-serving biochemistry and microbiology faculty member Winston Lee Adair Jr., PhD, who is remembered as both a brilliant scientist and an exceptionally skilled educator.

Dr. Adair died April 6 of complications from Alzheimer’s disease. He was 72.

Born in Oak Park, Ill., Dr. Adair was the son of a naval officer. He and his family moved frequently during his childhood for his father’s assignments; at various times he lived in French Morocco, Rhode Island, Maryland, Virginia, and Pennsylvania.

He graduated from Central High School for Boys in Pennsylvania and went on to study at Brown University, where he earned a bachelor’s degree in biochemistry, competed with the swim team, and was a member of Zeta Psi fraternity.

“Brown was the first school he attended for more than three years, and it always held a special place in his heart,” his daughter, Lauren Adair, wrote in her father’s obituary. “He was delighted to be able to travel to Brown last year to celebrate his 50th class reunion.”

After graduating from Brown, Dr. Adair completed his doctorate in biochemistry at Georgetown University, when he also met his wife of 44 years, Patricia.

From Georgetown, Dr. Adair headed west, working as a postdoctoral research associate at Washington University in St. Louis, before moving yet again, this time to Florida, which would become his home. Dr. Adair taught for 35 years as a professor in the Department of Molecular Medicine, retiring in 2010.

Professor and Department Chair Emeritus Larry Solomonson, PhD, worked with Dr. Adair throughout his career.

Dr. Adair, Dr. Solomonson said, is widely recognized for his work with glycol proteins and dolichol molecules, both of which are important for understanding human cell structure, and widely revered for his effectiveness in the classroom.

“He really shone as an educator. He was an outstanding lecturer and highly regarded by medical and graduate students,” Dr. Solomonson said. “He had a way of making complex concepts and subjects simple, so that they could be easily understood by his students.”

For example, one of Dr. Adair’s favorite lessons for teaching about enzymes involved chocolate-covered cherries.

“He would use that example with his students,” Lauren Adair said. “To make a chocolate-covered cherry, he would explain, you take a chocolate shell, pop in a cherry coated with an enzyme, and then the enzyme triggers a reaction that creates the sugary juice. He loved using interesting, real-word things to help his students learn.”

Ever the scientist and educator, Dr. Adair developed a reputation in his neighborhood as the “bug man,” Lauren Adair said.

“I would answer the door and there would be a kid out there with a bug wanting to know if my father was home,” she said, explaining her father was a trusted source for information including a bug’s life cycle, habitat and diet.

The “bug man” was also an avid collector of moths and butterflies, and even discovered several new species. He contributed several specimens to the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History, but most of his collection is on display at the Florida Museum’s McGuire Center for Lepidoptera and Biodiversity, in Gainesville, FL.

His deep knowledge of the natural world led to Dr. Adair being called on to survey the damage to the tropical hammocks and native habitats in the Florida Keys and Homestead area after Hurricane Andrew in 1992.

Later in his life, Dr. Adair became interested in genealogy.

“He had discovered over half a million names in our family,” Lauren Adair said.

For his wide-ranging interests, Dr. Solomonson said Dr. Adair was “the kind of man you’d want on your trivial pursuit team.”

He was also a man who touched the lives of his friends and students.

“Lee had a laconic approach to going about the day, but was always ready with a chuckle to lighten the moment,” said his colleague George Blanck, PhD, professor in the Department of Molecular Medicine in the USF Health Morsani College of Medicine.

Loree Heller, PhD, and Rosalyn Irby, PhD, two of Dr. Adair’s doctoral students who are now associate professors at Old Dominion University and Pennsylvania State University respectively, said in a shared statement:

“Dr. Adair was our PhD mentor. He was intelligent and kind, and we learned much from him about science and scientific integrity that still guides us today. Our respect and admiration for him has never wavered and we feel fortunate to have known him as a mentor and friend.”

In addition to his wife and daughter, Dr. Adair is survived by his son-in-law Adam Rosen, granddaughters Ella and Sarah, sister Ann Adair Sparks, and extended family.

A memorial service will be held at Unitarian Universalist Church of Tampa on May 6 at 2 p.m.