Princeton Scientist: Joseph Nichols

In the early days of U.S. 1, in the 1980s when it was a monthly, everyone on the staff delivered the paper. One of my favorite routes was Princeton Service Center, because I would get to stop at the Prodex lab and chat with Joe Nichols. He reminded me so much of my father — an ever curious scientist, never stopping work, always eager to see what discoveries lay ahead. He would have been in his ’70s then.

In the 1990s I pitched in on delivery from time to time, and again I would find Joe — now in his ’80s — in his lab. Alas I never got to attend a piano concert by his beloved wife Sylvia, but when she died in 1995 he sent me a tape of her work. Occasionally I’d call him for background information on a story about Integra Life Sciences. In its earliest days Integra (and its predecessor companies) were based on collagen technology, in which Nichols was a pioneer. Integra’s first product, based on collagen, was artificially-grown skin that saved the lives of those with terrible burns.

Richard Caruso, founder of Integra, credits Joseph Nichols, co-founder of Helitrex, with playing an important role in the use of collagen materials. “Not very much of what we are doing today would be possible if it were not for Joe Nichols’ brilliance 20 years ago,” said Caruso in a 1997 U.S. 1 article. “He was an incredible mentor and always interested in being helpful to us.”

When I talked with Stuart Essig (the CEO of Integra Life Sciences) after his speech at Princeton University’s Friend Center a couple of months ago, Essig and I were chatting about the early history of the company and Joe Nichols. Essig said he had been keeping in touch with Joe — but that he hadn’t heard from him lately.

Now we know why. He had had a stroke and had been confined to a nursing home. Joseph Nichols, 92, died on November 27 at the King James Care Center in Chatham, New Jersey. The memorial service is Tuesday, December 1, at 1 p.m.

In Princeton, scientists like Joe Nichols can flourish. In semi-retirement he could maintain a lab at Princeton Service Center, next to companies like Greg Olsen’s Sensors Unlimited. With intelligence and perseverance, Joe Nichols pursued his scientific dreams.

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