Dr. Aaron Lerner, founder of dermatology at Yale

Next time you have jet lag and need some melatonin, thank Aaron Lerner.  Who knew a dermatologist discovered and coined the termmelatonin” in his quest to understand skin pigmentation?

Reading about Dr. Lerner makes me feel like I’m not doing enough with my life.


The ‘lab jack’ invented by Dr. Lerner

He was invited by Paul Beeson (who has been compared to Osler), Chairmen of Internal Medicine to begin a dermatology section at Yale in 1955, and grew it into a department by 1971. In his first six years, Lerner singlehandedly: started a residency training program, created clinical rotations in dermatology for medical students and internal medicine residents at Yale, discovered melatonin, discovered α-MSH, and published the first in-depth study on vitiligo. He was the first to transplant autologous melanocytes into depigmented skin for patients with vitiligo. He was nominated for the Nobel Prize in 1969 and in 1993 for his contributions to medicine.  (the award went to doctors who figured out how viruses replicate.)


He liked to tinker and do woodworking in his free time.  He invented and patented the first “lab jack which raises and lifts beakers to their proper height for an experiment.

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Dr. Michael Lerner as a young boy holding a bag of bovine pineal glands for his dad’s research.

He had four sons, two of whom were born during his early years at Yale, and at least one of them was always recruited to assist him with experiments on Saturday mornings. This picture of his son Michael holding a gigantic bag of bovine pineal glands is my personal favorite.

His middle name, “Bunsen” was acquired as a high-school nickname because of Dr. Lerner’s love of chemistry. During medical school, he worked out the metabolism of homogentisic acid, which was critical for understanding alkaptonuria.  As a medical student, he also isolated the first monoclonal antibody and coined the term “cryoglobulin” upon recognizing the ability of these proteins to precipitate at low temperatures. He earned his M.D. and Ph.D. in only four years.


Aaron Lerner’s brother started Lerner Publishing group, which publishes children’s books.  His wife Marge (Marguerite) also wrote children’s medical books such as “Peter gets the Chickenpox”.

Esteemed programs in dermatology such as Harvard, Stanford, Yale all currently have chairmen who trained under Dr. Lerner, worldwide over 40 chairmen of various departments of dermatology were residents under Dr. Lerner.

Sancy Leachman recalled him saying the quote below, which is worth remembering for anyone involved in research, social change, or creative work.

When you work on administrative tasks all day, you feel you have been productive at the end of each day, but at the end of the year, it’s hard to say what you have done.  When you work in the lab, it’s just the opposite; at the end of a day– it’s hard to see that you’ve made any progress at all, but by the end of the year you’ve made an enormous contribution.”  ~ Aaron B. Lerner

If you care about medical history, you can help save the moulages at the birthplace of dermatology.


  1. http: //archives.news.yale.edu/v35.n18/story16.html
  2. http://www.nytimes.com/2007/02/17/nyregion/17lerner.html
  3. Braverman, I, Aaron B. Lerner, MD, PhD: a personal rememberance. J. Investigative Dermatol. 2007(127): 2090-2091
  4. Learchman, S. Training with Aaron Lerner. J. Investigative Dermatol. 2007(127): 2094-2096.
  5. Milstone LM, Milstone EB. Current understanding and future implications of the circadian uses of melatonin, a neurohormone discovered by Aaron B. Lerner. J. Investigative Dermatol. 2007(127): 2082-2085.
  6. Edelson, R.  Aaron Lerner’s legacy at Yale University.  J. Investigative Dermatol. 2007(127): 2081-2082.
  7. Johnson MLF.  The early days at Yale.  J. Investigative Dermatol. 2007(127): 2079-2081.
  8. Lerner, E. Aaron B. Lerner 1920-2007. J. Investigative Dermatol. 2007(127): 2077-2079.
  9. Lerner, AB.  With a perfect start: dermatology at Yale 1955-1985. J. Am. Acad. Dermatol.  2001(44): 1030-1040.


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Faculty at the Department of Dermatology at the University of Texas Southwestern. interests: cutaneous lymphomas, medical student education, the relationship between art and medicine.

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