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A Pioneer Who Changed the Field of Skeletal Biology

Harold M. Frost, ’46 MD, was a pioneer in skeletal biology and research. Though he died in June 2004, his research continues to have a profound influence in areas as disparate as orthopaedics, endocrinology, orthodontics, anthropology and bioengineering. His two-volume textbook, “The Utah Paradigm of Skeletal Physiology,” is recommended reading for those involved in the research and teaching of skeletal and related problems. Dr. Frost published nearly 500 peer-reviewed articles and is one of the most cited investigators in skeletal research.

After completing his medical degree at Dartmouth and Northwestern, he served as an officer in the Naval Medical Corps, and then completed his surgical internship at the University of Massachusetts in Worcester and residencies in orthopaedic surgery at Buffalo General and Children’s hospitals in New York. After two years in private practice, he became an assistant professor of orthopaedic surgery at Yale University School of Medicine in 1955. Dr. Frost moved to Henry Ford Hospital in Detroit to become the founder and director of the Orthopedic Research Laboratory in 1957, and department chair from 1966 to 1972, as well as clinical research professor of surgery at the University of Michigan School of Medicine from 1968 through 1972. It was during his tenure at Henry Ford Hospital that Dr. Frost made numerous research advances that changed the study of bone biology.

Many of Frost’s discoveries supported his concept that the skeleton is primarily a mechanical organ. He concluded that osteoclasts and osteoblasts worked together as coordinated remodeling teams, which he named Basic Multicellular Units, or BMUs. In collaboration with Robert Hattner and Bruce Epker, Dr. Frost published an article in Nature (1965)―that was chosen by the Journal of NIH Research as a landmark article 30 years later―demonstrating that more than 96% of adult bone formation occurs only after previous resorptive processes. He also developed a technique to histologically demonstrate microcracks in human bone biopsies and experimentally showed that estrogens reduce bone turnover. Dr. Frost also proposed that bone mass is directly tied to lean muscle mass and muscle force.

Much of his research is in current use. He perfected a series of measurements that led to quantitative bone histomorphometry, a tool still employed by laboratories worldwide to evaluate the effects of some new drugs. His basic theories for bone growth plate adaptation to mechanical loading form the basis for many mathematical and computational bioengineering models.

Above all, Dr. Frost had a passion for teaching. He fostered numerous efforts to facilitate better communication among skeletal scientists by helping to form the American Society for Bone and Mineral Research (ASBMR) In Vivo Working Group and the Black Forest Workshops, as well as helping co-found the Sun Valley Hard Tissue Workshops in 1966.

He received the American Medical Association’s Hektoen Gold Medal in 1963, but much of the recognition for his work didn’t come until later. Most notable were the Special Senior Investigator Award from the American Society of Biomechanics (1987), the Sun Valley Hard Tissue Workshop Remodeling in Bone (RIB) award (1991), Honorary Doctor of Science degree from  Purdue University (1994), Honorary Professor of Surgery at Guangdong Medical College, Zhanjiang, China (1994), the William F. Neuman Award from the ASBMR (2001), and the creation of the Harold M. Frost Professorship at Henry Ford Hospital (1991). The ASBMR/Harold Frost Young Investigator and the Harold Frost Asian Pacific Bone Morphometry Awards (2004) were named after him.