March 20, 2019
Scientists Gone, But Not Forgotten
Be Well

Scientists Gone, But Not Forgotten

by John Swartzberg, M.D.  

As we approach the end of 2017, you will likely come across lists of actors, pop stars, and other celebrities who passed away this year—Mary Tyler Moore, Sam Shepard, John Hurt, Glenn Campbell, Chuck Berry, Jerry Lewis, Adam West (as in Batman), and the '70s teen heartthrob David Cassidy, to name a few.

Less common are tributes to scientists who may not have been famous by measures of mainstream culture but rather, behind the scenes, played quiet yet profound roles in the advancement of medicine.

Among the many who deserve recognition, here are eight scientists I would like to briefly acknowledge.

  • Angela Hartley Brodie, biochemist, age 82. Beginning in the 1970s, she pioneered the development of a class of drugs, aromatase inhibitors, that act against estrogen-driven breast cancer. Her motivation was to find better ways to treat this type of breast cancer at a time when the mainstay treatment was radical mastectomy (sending women to the “butcher’s shop,” as she described it), a procedure rarely done today. Often the diagnosis was, in effect, a death sentence. Aromatase inhibitors, which have fewer side effects than chemotherapy, also hold promise for prostate cancer.
  • Lloyd Conover, chemist, age 93. By tweaking a molecule in an existing antibiotic in the early 1950s, Dr. Conover is credited with developing tetracycline, the first semi-synthetic antibiotic (previously, most were natural substances, like penicillin produced by a mold). This broad-spectrum antibiotic became one of the most important drugs of all time—until overuse, especially in livestock, caused many bacterial strains to become resistant to it, lessening its effectiveness. Regulations now limit the use of tetracycline and some other antibiotics in meat production.
  • Marian Cleeves Diamond, neuroscientist and professor emeritus at UC Berkeley, age 90. Perhaps best known for examining Einstein’s brain, she revealed through rat experiments that the brain is malleable to life experiences—the concept of neuroplasticity and an example of nurture over nature. Before her work, it was thought that the brain’s connections, once formed, could not be “rewired,” such as in adulthood or after injury. On Berkeley’s campus, she was known as the “woman with the hat box,” referring to the box containing a preserved brain that she brought to her classes (as seen in this trailer for a 2016 documentary depicting her life). From personal experience knowing her at Berkeley, she was an elegant, intelligent, and charming woman.
  • Fred A. Kummerow, biochemist, age 102. With increased government funding for research available after President Eisenhower had a heart attack in 1955, Dr. Kummerow was one of the first scientists to link trans fats in processed foods to a higher risk of heart disease. Though it took decades, the FDA finally banned these artery-clogging fats from the food supply, in a regulation that goes into effect in 2018. The ban is expected to save tens of thousands of lives a year in the U.S.
  • John Littlefield, physician/scientist, age 91. Among his many achievements, he developed amniocentesis, a test used since the mid-1970s to screen for chromosomal abnormalities and birth defects in developing fetuses, including Down syndrome and spina bifida. It involves removing amniotic fluid with a needle to test fetal DNA. Typically done in women over age 35 at around the 16th week of pregnancy, the test helps older women, as well as parents-to-be who are known carriers of a genetic disorder, make informed family-planning decisions.
  • Isabelle Rapin, pediatric neurologist, age 89. Called one of the “founding mothers of autism” by the chief science officer of the autism advocacy group Autism Speaks, Dr. Rapin advanced the concept of the autism spectrum—that the disorder varies in symptoms and severity and has no single cause. She also advocated for early educational intervention and helped discredit the notion that “emotionally cold” mothers were responsible.
  • Peter Mansfield, physicist, age 83. His work helped pave the way for the now-ubiquitous MRI (magnetic resonance imaging) scanner, for which he was the co-winner of the 2003 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine. This non-invasive test, which uses radio waves and magnetic fields (not X-rays, like CT scans do), yields 3D images of structures inside the body that can be used to diagnose a range of conditions from cartilage tears to brain tumors. He was also involved in the subsequent development of scanners that can show a beating heart and of the functional MRI (fMRI), which maps the brain during mental activities.
  • Thomas Starzl, surgeon, age 90. Called the “father of organ transplantation,” Dr. Starzl pioneered the liver transplant, performing the first successful ones in 1963. Though the patients died within days or a few weeks, he subsequently developed drug protocols that significantly improved survival rates. Today, more than 7,500 liver transplants are performed every year in the U.S. alone, with five-year survival rates exceeding 75 percent. I had the pleasure of meeting Dr. Starzl a few times when I was doing my residency in internal medicine at the University of Colorado, where he was a professor at the time—not only brilliant, but also a very nice guy.

Commonalities: Some things most of these scientists had in common—besides their long lives—is that their research was initially met with skepticism or they faced other challenges. For instance, Dr. Kummerow’s early findings were criticized and rejected, and he was up against a powerful food industry that had strong economic incentives for keeping trans fats in the food supply, while Dr. Brodie initially met resistance from pharmaceutical companies when she wanted to pursue testing of her breast cancer drugs. Women scientists back then had it particularly tough. Yet all these scientists persevered in their work, ultimately finding ways to help people live longer and better lives.

Also see Microbe Hunters, Then and Now.