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Former OHSU President Leonard Laster dies at age 92

Laster worked to establish the Vollum Institute and sought to raise the university’s profile as a national leader in medical research
Black and white photo of Leonard Laster, M.D., a smiling white man in a suit, standing at The Vollum Institute at OHSU in Portland, Oregon.
OHSU President Leonard Laster, M.D., stands in front of the Vollum Institute in 1987. Laster was instrumental in establishing the institute and in putting OHSU on the national map as an academic health center with a focus on research. (OHSU Archives)

Leonard Laster, M.D., who served as president of what first became known as Oregon Health Sciences University during his tenure in 1981, has died at 92 years of age. He passed away on Oct. 24 in Brookline, Massachusetts.

Laster’s tenure at OHSU was marked by an emphasis on putting the university on the national map as an academic health center with a focus on research.

“He believed in the power of science and medical research, and he believed Oregon should be a leader,” said his son, Stephen Laster. “He believed Oregon had the potential to really change the world, and that medical research can have a profound impact in human health.”

Laster’s most notable achievement may have been establishing the Vollum Institute, which has subsequently produced reams of cutting-edge research advancing basic scientific understanding into how the nervous system works at the molecular level. Laster convinced Tektronix founder Howard Vollum to start an endowment, and U.S. Sen. Mark O. Hatfield to secure federal funding for construction.

A black and white photo of Leonard Laster and Howard Vollum, two white men in suits, speaking in front of an accordion partition.
Leonard Laster, M.D., talks with Tektronix founder Howard Vollum, whose financial commitment helped to establish OHSU as national leader in neuroscience research. (OHSU Archives)

“OHSU extends our heartfelt sympathy to the family of Leonard Laster,” said OHSU President Danny Jacobs, M.D., M.P.H., FACS. “We are honored to carry on Dr. Laster’s vision of OHSU as a national leader in medical research and clinical care. The Vollum Institute, established through his unique capability to harness public and private partnerships, today stands as a prime example of the power of basic science research to ultimately improve the health and well-being of people in Oregon and beyond.”

Other major projects during Laster’s tenure included construction of the Biomedical Information Communications Center, or BICC, as well as other initiatives to expand the university’s capacity for research. He earned a reputation for doggedly pursuing his goals for the university with a style that could be focused and determined.

“He wanted to push the medical school into the future,” recalled his former secretary Carol Reinmiller, now retired and living in West Linn. “He had to fight like crazy to get a lot of the faculty on board with his ideas.”

After serving as a medicine and medical research adviser in the Nixon administration, Laster became vice president and dean of The College of Medicine, Downstate Medical Center, part of the State University of New York.

Color photo of Leonard Laster, a smiling, white-haired Caucasian man in a tan sweater.
Leonard Laster, M.D., served as OHSU president from 1978 to 1987. (Stephen Laster)

He was hired as president of what was then the University of Oregon Health Sciences Center in 1978. In 1981, Laster instigated the name change to Oregon Health Sciences University, or OHSU, as part of an effort to build a distinct identity and avoid confusion with the University of Oregon in Eugene. It was subsequently updated to the current name, Oregon Health & Science University.

Laster, raised in New York and educated at Harvard University, departed OHSU in 1987 to become chancellor of the University of Massachusetts Medical Center.

The Oregonian newspaper highlighted Laster’s legacy in an editorial published on Sept. 9, 1987.

“He leaves behind in Portland an improving medical school and expanding research facilities that in several fields are primed to reach the cutting edge of scientific excellence,” the paper wrote. “Much of this growth and rise in quality can be attributed to Laster’s skills as a tenacious promoter of his own vision of a full-service medical research and teaching facility, his astute and aggressive talents for raising private and public funds, and his ability to defend the fort from external and sometimes internal challenges.”

Laster leaves behind his wife of 64 years, Ruth Ann Laster, as well as the couple’s children, Judith Laster, Susan Laster, and Stephen Laster.

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