Melvin Jerome Gortatowski, Ph.D.

October 30, 1925 - March 1, 2024

Melvin J. Gortatowski passed away at age 98 on March 1, 2024, at his home in Salt Lake City from causes incidental to a fall sustained at his advanced age.

Mel was born on October 30, 1925, in Chicago, Illinois to Walter H. and Anna M. (Santowski) Gortatowski. He was their only child. He was a lifelong member of the Roman Catholic Church. His parents enrolled him in St. Mary of the Angels’ Catholic School at seven years of age where he was educated by loving, but very strict nuns.

By the age of nine his life’s career path was determined as he had fallen in love with chemistry. A chemistry set soon grew into a small chemistry lab in the corner of his childhood bedroom with the help of his father’s construction skills. In his own words, “Somehow I managed to not burn down the apartment we lived in on Willow St.”

His high school years at Weber High in Chicago were accelerated due to the US’ entry into WWII. He was offered a deferral option by the draft board which allowed him to enlist in the Reserve Corps, finish high school in only three years, and then enter active duty. Instead of walking with his fellow classmates at HS graduation in June of 1944, Mel was already training at Fort Riley, Kansas for the European theater. He served in the Signal Corps behind enemy lines in Germany and Austria. As the war was winding down he witnessed first-hand the freeing of the surviving holocaust victims held in the Mauthausen Concentration Camp near Linz, Austria.

After the war, Mel studied chemistry, earning a BS from the University of Illinois (1950); an MS from Washington State University (1952); and a Ph.D. from the University of Illinois (1956) where he was an Eastman Kodak fellow.  A post-doctorate fellowship in biochemistry brought him to Salt Lake City in 1955. He worked at the University of Utah as well as the Veterans Administration over the next ten years.

Between 1965 and 1971, he worked as an assistant research professor investigating genetically inherited disorders at the University of Southern California Children's Hospital in Los Angeles.  He returned to Salt Lake City to head up the newly created laboratory that was charged with screening the blood of every newborn baby born within the State of Utah for Phenylketonuria (PKU).  PKU is an inherited metabolic disorder resulting from an enzyme deficiency that, if left untreated, results in profound mental retardation. Mel was proud of his staff’s record of never having missed a Utah baby during his tenure. He retired from his role as Director of Clinical Chemistry and Newborn Screening in 1987.

To say that Mel was eccentric would be the understatement of the century. Like the true scientist in his lab, he took careful notes of literally everything—including what he did every day. And yet, he was extremely warm/personable. He would soak the labels off of the wine bottles from wine consumed at special events and write a history on them in remembrance of the event and the people who took part in it. He had a wonderful wit and loved word play. He had a whole file of Polish jokes. He was also humble, oft to be heard saying that he was a “phony doctor” since he had Ph. D., not M.D., behind his name. He was always the teacher, be it teaching biochemistry to the medical students at the University of Utah in the 1950s to introducing the fun of science and, specifically, chemistry to the students at Cosgriff Elementary.

Although Mel often said his one regret in life was never marrying and having a family, he nevertheless leaves behind a long list of godchildren, friends, colleagues, and neighbors whom he considered his family and they consider him, theirs. In Mel’s own words, “Through the years I was fortunate enough to make many trusted and loyal friends to whom I am deeply grateful.” A list of these individuals would fill pages and pages. Thank you to those of you whom he loved and reciprocated love back towards him! 

Without John Catrow and Lynn and Mary Beth Whittaker, Mel's desire to remain in his home to the very end would have been impossible. A huge thank you goes out to these selfless individuals! Thanks also to the caregivers of Bristol Hospice and to the many visitors who stopped in to see him the last eight months of his life.

A wake will be held April 10, 2024, from 6-8 PM at Stark's Funeral Parlor, 3651 South 900 East, Millcreek. Guests are encouraged to use parking and entrance located on the north side of the building. A Roman Catholic Mass for Mel will be celebrated by Father Andrzej Skrzypiec at the Cathedral of the Madeleine at 9:30AM on Thursday, April 11, 2024. Mel will be laid to rest alongside his parents Anna and Walter in Mount Calvary Catholic Cemetery in Salt Lake City.

In lieu of flowers, please consider a donation to Catholic Relief Services to help support the Ukrainians displaced by the Russian invasion of Ukraine and/or Devine Mercy Care to help in their mission to save lives.