March 4, 2024

James Swenberg, DVM, DACVP, PhD, Kenan Distinguished Professor at the UNC Gillings School of Global Public Health in the Department of Environmental Sciences and Engineering, died October 5, 2023. He was an accomplished individual whose life was marked by a profound dedication to toxicologic research. Dr. Swenberg forged a career marked by academic excellence, groundbreaking research and impactful leadership spanning several institutions and decades.

In 1960, he graduated from Detroit Lakes High School in Minnesota, laying the foundation for a lifelong pursuit of knowledge. He earned a Bachelor of Science degree in pre-veterinary studies with high distinction from the University of Minnesota in 1964. His passion for veterinary medicine led him to further studies at the University of Minnesota, where he achieved the prestigious Doctor of Veterinary Medicine degree in 1966. He pursued advanced studies in veterinary pathology at Ohio State University, earning a Master of Science degree in 1968 and a Doctor of Philosophy in veterinary pathology in 1970.

A group of people gathered for a photo.

Dr. Swenberg and faculty.

Starting with a foundation in veterinary pharmacology, he held a National Institutes of Health (NIH) Predoctoral Fellowship in 1964 and continued with a NIH Postdoctoral Traineeship from 1966 to 1970. His academic journey included roles as research associate, assistant professor and associate professor — all in the Department of Veterinary Pathology at Ohio State University.

Dr. Swenberg served as a research scientist and research section head at The Upjohn Company from 1972 to 1978, contributing significantly to the fields of pathology and toxicology. In 1989, Swenberg moved to Glaxo, Inc. in North Carolina as the head of the Department of Drug Safety Evaluation. Concurrently, he maintained academic connections with appointments at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and Duke University Medical Center.

While at Carolina, Dr. Swenberg was appointed as a research professor (later professor) in the Department of Environmental Sciences and Engineering, a professor in the Department of Pathology, and a professor in the Department of Nutrition.

Demonstrating his commitment to education and research leadership, Dr. Swenberg directed the Curriculum in Toxicology and Environmental Medicine at Carolina from 1992 to 2010. He also directed the Superfund Basic Research Program — funded by the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences — and the Center for Environmental Health and Susceptibility, further solidifying his impact on environmental and public health research. Dr. Swenberg also helped to establish the Mass Spectrometry Core Laboratory at Carolina.

Throughout this remarkable journey, Dr. Swenberg received numerous accolades, culminating in his designation as the Kenan Distinguished Professor of Environmental Sciences and Engineering in 2005. Hemalso received the Gillings School’s Greenberg Alumni Endowment Award for Excellence in Teaching, Research and Service and was honored for Outstanding Contributions to Research in 2010.

Throughout his illustrious career, Swenberg made significant contributions to the field of toxicology, leaving an indelible mark on both academia and the broader toxicology community. His dedication to the advancement of veterinary science, coupled with passion for education, touched the lives of many students, colleagues and professionals. He trained more than 60 doctoral and graduate students over the course of his career; many of these former trainees have gone on to be scientific leaders in the field.

A group of people gathered for a photo.

Dr. Swenberg with students.

Swenberg held three patents and co-authored more than 350 publications. Among these is the seminal, “Swenberg, J.A., W.D. Kerns, R.I. Mitchell, E.J. Gralla and K.L. Pavkov. Induction of squamous cell carcinomas of the rat nasal cavity by inhalation exposure to formaldehyde vapor. Cancer Res. 40:3398-3402 (1980).” This study laid the foundation for formaldehyde’s role as a carcinogen.

Beyond his professional achievements, Swenberg will be remembered for his mentorship and unwavering commitment to excellence. His impact on the lives of those he encountered will serve as a testament to his enduring spirit and profound influence. His legacy is one of tireless dedication to advancing knowledge, fostering academic excellence, and shaping the future of toxicology and environmental sciences.

There will be a Scientific Symposium to honor him and his work on March 22 from 3–5 p.m. in 133 Rosenau Hall at the Gillings School. RSVP for in-person attendance by visiting the Scientific Symposium webpage. If you would like to attend virtually, visit the Zoom Webinar webpage.

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