Tuesday, July 29, 2008

A Maine Giant in Medicine and Public Health

A pioneer in medicine, genetics, and public health from Maine died earlier last week. Victor McKusick, MD was born in 1921 in Parkman, Maine, a farming community south of Greenville of 500 inhabitants. He attended a one-room schoolhouse for eight years, with the same teacher for seven of those years, and with his identical twin, Vincent. Graduating the top of his high school class of 28 students, Victor attended Tufts University, then earned a medical degree at Johns Hopkins University Medical School (never earning a college degree, since medical schools at that time, especially during WWII, allowed some students to enter medical school before finishing college).

After becoming a cardiologist at Hopkins, he was particularly intrigued by patients he treated with Marfan Syndrome, a hereditary disease that is characterized by malfunctions of the aorta, dislocated eye lenses, and unusually tall stature. These experiences spurred his interests in public health and genetics. As a Professor of Epidemiology at the Hopkins School of Hygiene and Public Health and eventually as a Professor of Medical Genetics, some of his best known accomplishments were his pedigree study of Amish communities and his development of the Mendelian Inheritance of Man (MIM), the listing of known genetic disease markers. These and other studies led to his becoming known as the father of medical genetics.

Victor earned numerous honorary degrees and awards for his work, including the National Medal of Science and the Lasker Award. Although Victor spent his career at Johns Hopkins, he maintained strong ties to his home state. He founded the Short Course in Human Genetics in 1959, held at Jackson Laboratory at Mount Desert Island every summer and that continues to attract international leaders in biomedical research. He also served on the Board of Trustees of University of New England.

Although many speculated if having an identical twin spurred his interest in genetics, he once pointed out that an important event in his life was probably more likely the cause. At age 15 he was hospitalized for 10 weeks with a severe streptococcal infection at Massachusetts General Hospitals. He always felt fortunate that sulfanilamide came out as an antibiotic in 1936. In 1937, he was 15, and witnessed the miraculous melting away of his infection with the infusion of this drug.

He is survived by his twin, Vincent, who graduated from Bates College and law school, and eventually became the Chief Justice of the Maine Supreme Court for 15 years. He is also survived by his wife, Dr. Anne Bishop McKusick, who is a rheumatologist, and his three children.
Dr. McKusick reminisced about his proposing in the 1960s that the human genome should be mapped:

"It took a little nerve," he said later, because nobody then had the tools to do the job. "I'm a congenital encyclopedist. I enjoy keeping on top of all the information. Also, I feel I have a tiger by the tail. I don't dare let go: It'll eat me up."

We are very fortunate to claim such a gem as Dr. McKusick to be from Maine and to have made such a mark in public health and medicine. On a personal note, I was very fortunate to have spent an evening with him at a Foundation for Blood Research dinner several years ago. Despite all his accomplishments and honors, he was incredibly humble and fun. I’m sure his life’s story will continue to be an inspiration to many of us in Maine.

Dora Anne Mills, MD, MPH

Johns Hopkins Press Release: http://www.hopkinsmedicine.org/Press_releases/2008/07_23_08.html

Oral History of Human Genetics Project Interview with Dr. McKusick: http://www.socgen.ucla.edu/hgp/mckusick.html