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Michael D. Gershon was born on March 3, 1938 in New York, NY. Nothing in his early life prepared him for a scientific career. Dr. Gershon’s father was a lawyer and an accountant, did tax law, and ran the Audit Unit of the New York City Board of Education. His mother was a high school teacher who specialized in teaching stenography to children with special needs. After a traumatic experience at a truly awful junior high school, Dr. Gershon was offered an opportunity to join an “honors” class in Biology in high school. His qualifications appeared to be marginal but they needed one more student to fill the class and, although it seemed to the authorities that Dr. Gershon would be hard pressed to cope with the work, they were willing to let him try if he was willing to accept the challenge. Dr. Gershon accepted that challenge and it set his career path for life. The Biology teacher was gifted and the subject addicted Dr. Gershon; however, the promised difficulty of the work never materialized. He “aced” that course; work is not work when it is fun. Sinclair Lewis’ “Arrowsmith”, read the same year, convinced Dr. Gershon that biomedical research would be his life’s work and so it has been.
Dr. Gershon received his Bachelor’s degree with distinction from Cornell University in 1958. He went on to complete his MD degree, also at Cornell, in 1963, having taken an extra year to gain a research experience. That year set his field as Anatomy and Cell Biology. It also enabled him the find the right woman, Dr. Anne Gershon, to whom he has been married ever since. After graduation, Dr. Gershon, now the father of one son, omitted clinical training and went on to do post-doctoral work, first at Cornell, and then from 1965-6, in Pharmacology, at Oxford University. Dr. Gershon returned from Oxford to the Department of Anatomy at Cornell, where between 1964 and 1975 he rose through the academic ranks to Professor.
In December of 1975, Dr. Gershon made the crosstown move from Cornell to Columbia University where he served as Professor and Chair of the Department of Anatomy and Cell Biology until 2006 when he stepped down as Chair, but continued his research and teaching as a Professor. His old department was fused with the Department of Pathology and is now the Department of Pathology and Cell Biology. From the time of his graduation to the present, the National Institutes of Health has supported Dr. Gershon, providing funding for his research and for a significant portion of his salary.
Dr. Gershon has been called “the father of neurogastroenterology” for his explication of the ability of the enteric nervous system (ENS) to function without CNS input, the roles of serotonin in gut physiology, and for his pioneering work on ENS development. Dr. Gershon’s major discoveries include serotonin’s actions as an ENS neurotransmitter. Dr. Gershon was also the first to identify intraenteric primary afferent neurons that trigger peristaltic and secretory reflexes and to show that mucosal serotonin activates these neurons. Dr. Gershon identified and characterized the gastrointestinal functions of many of the enteric receptors that respond to serotonin and he was the first to demonstrate that the serotonin transporter (SERT), which terminates mucosal and ENS serotonergic signaling, is present in enterocytes and serotonergic neurons. Dr. Gershon has also shown that mucosal serotonin is proinflammatory but that ENS serotonin is anti-inflammatory. These observations have given rise to the concept that serotonin is “the sword and shield of the bowel” driving inflammation to protect the gut from microbial invasion while, at the same time, protecting enteric neurons from inflammatory damage. Serotonin activates adult stem cells to give rise to new neurons and acts as a growth factor during fetal neurogenesis. Dr. Gershon discovered roles in ENS development of netrins, laminin, and many growth and transcription factors that help explain the pathogenesis of Hirschsprung’s disease and other ENS birth defects. Drs. Michael and Anne Gershon have demonstrated that varicella zoster virus (VZV), the cause of chickenpox and shingles, infects, becomes latent, and reactivates in enteric neurons, both in an animal model and in the human gut. These observations raise the possibility that “enteric zoster” occurs and could potentially give rise to a variety of gastrointestinal disorders, the pathogenesis of which is currently unexplained.
Dr. Gershon has received several prominent honors. A few of those highlights include serving as president of the Cajal Club in 1994, the Association of Chairs of Departments of Anatomy in 1986, and as president of AAA from 1995-1996. The American Association for the Advancement of Science elected him as a fellow in 1999. In 2000, Dr. Gershon was awarded the Henry Gray/Lippincott Williams Wilkins Scientific Achievement Award, AAA’s highest scientific honor. He was elected as a Fellow of the AAA in 2007 and to membership in the American Clinical and Climatological Association in 2011. Dr. Gershon’s work has been recognized and honored by the Collège de France, Mayo University, the American Physiological Association, and the American Gastroenterological Association.