Louis S. Harris, longtime School of Medicine professor and devoted VCU supporter, dies

Harris served as chair of the Department of Pharmacology and Toxicology and supported numerous university programs with his wife, Ruth.

Louis Harris, Ph.D.
Louis Harris, Ph.D.

Louis S. Harris, Ph.D., who served on the faculty of the Virginia Commonwealth University School of Medicine for 44 years, died on June 10.

During his tenure, Harris helped lead the rise of the VCU School of Medicine’s Department of Pharmacology and Toxicology into national prominence. He served as department chair for two decades and oversaw National Institutes of Health grants focused on research in drug abuse from the earliest days of his time at VCU.

VCU President Michael Rao, Ph.D., said Harris and his family also have passionately supported VCU over the years, including the schools of Medicine, Education, Dentistry, and the Arts, the colleges of Engineering and Humanities and Sciences, the Honors College, the MCV Foundation and the Institute for Contemporary Art. In addition, Harris served on the MCV Foundation Board of Trustees, where he remained an honorary lifetime trustee. Harris received the MCV Foundation’s W. Robert Irby, M.D. Award in 2006 as the outstanding MCV Campus faculty volunteer, recognizing his devotion to securing financial support for the campus.

Rao called Harris an “icon” at VCU for his work as a faculty member and as a supporter of programs across the university.

“For many years, Lou, his wife, Ruth, and their son have been visionary and generous supporters of VCU and our indelible mission,” Rao said. “They have represented the very best of us and worked tirelessly to ensure that we are a nationally prominent research university laser-focused on our mission of new discoveries to improve human health, access, excellence, quality, safety and service.”

In 2010, Ruth and Louis Harris funded the first endowed professorship in VCU’s School of Education, supporting faculty focused on language learning and dyslexia and bringing nationally prominent researchers and lecturers in those fields to VCU. Ruth, who died in May 2014, was an expert in educating students with dyslexia. The couple also created the Charles Allan Harris Merit Scholarship to support film and photography students in the School of the Arts. The scholarship was named in honor of their son, a VCU graduate who now runs a successful film production company in Richmond.

As a professor, Harris was a prolific researcher, publishing in high-profile scholarly journals nearly 300 times, up to his retirement from VCU in 2016, when he was named professor emeritus. For a generation, he was a leader in opioid and cannabinoid pharmacology as well as pain management, areas in which VCU continues to advance his profound national legacy. Among multiple honors presented by his peers, he won the most prestigious award given by the College on Problems of Drug Dependence.

Bill Dewey, Ph.D., chair of the Department of Pharmacology and Toxicology at VCU, holds the Louis and Ruth Harris Professorship in Pharmacology and Toxicology that honors Harris’ legacy in the department. Dewey said Harris’ impact was incalculable.

“Sixty years ago, I met Lou Harris,” Dewey said. “He has been my friend, mentor and colleague ever since that day. The opportunities and support he provided to me, he’s provided to countless others over an extraordinary career and life. He transformed the Department of Pharmacology and Toxicology in education and in research, including a marked expansion in federal research grants, faculty and trainees. He’s a renaissance man in the truest sense – a love for science, a love for the arts and an unsurpassed compassion for his fellow man.”

After his retirement, Harris continued his work as a researcher, writer, fundraiser and philanthropist. Among his efforts, he led fundraising initiatives to support graduate students in medicine and purchased works from VCU arts students to be displayed in VCU hospitals and clinics.

“Throughout his long life and career, Lou embodied VCU’s excellence,” Rao said. “He and his family have made an indelible mark on our university and medical center, and we are forever grateful. Their wisdom, leadership and generosity made VCU better and stronger for the generations who will follow them.”