Saturday, August 9, 2008

McKusick, Pioneer in Medical Genetics, Dies at 86

Dr. Victor A. McKusick, a native of Parkman, considered to be the father of medical genetics, died Tuesday of cancer at his home outside Baltimore, Md., at the age of 86.

He was the key architect of the Human Genome Project, winner of the National Medal of Science in 2001 and the Japan Prize earlier this year. He was born on Oct. 21, 1921, a few minutes after his identical twin brother, Vincent L. McKusick, former chief justice of the Maine Supreme Judicial Court.

Officials at Johns Hopkins University, where Victor McKusick was a professor of genetics and the McKusick-Nathans Institute of Genetic Medicine was named for him in 1999, mourned his loss.

"We have lost a giant," said Johns Hopkins Medicine dean and chief executive officer Edward D. Miller. "He spent virtually all of his incredible career at Hopkins, but his influence and legacy reach around the world."

Victor McKusick founded the Johns Hopkins Division of Medical Genetics in 1957 and in 1973 became chairman of its department of medicine and physician-in-chief of The Johns Hopkins Hospital. Officials said he became a professor of medical genetics in 1985 and remained active in that teaching role until last year.

The physician and his colleagues taught a two-week course in genetics each summer at The Jackson Laboratory in Bar Harbor. It became a highly respected course in the subject, attracting more than 4,000 students, doctors and researchers over the years.

"Victor McKusick’s seminal contributions in genetics, medicine and education have simply become synonymous with excellence in biomedicine," Rick Woychik, president and CEO of Jackson Lab, said Thursday. "His involvement with The Jackson Laboratory over the past 50 years in co-organizing the Short Course in Experimental and Mammalian Genetics is a reflection of his intense commitment to help thousands of students, scientists and physicians learn and put into practice the remarkable power of genetics for understanding human disease."

Former Maine Gov. John McKernan and the McKusick brothers each received an honorary degree in June from the University of New England in Biddeford. McKernan and his wife, U.S. Sen. Olympia J. Snowe, issued a statement Thursday through her office.

"Dr. McKusick, along with his accomplished brother, Vincent," the former governor said, "demonstrated to every Maine child that there are no limits to what they can accomplish with hard work and a curious mind."

In 1966, Victor McKusick published the first edition of his catalog "Mendelian Inheritance of Man" with 1,500 entries on inherited disorders. Today, the publication has grown to more than 20,000 entries.

He was one of the first to propose the human genome map in 1969 and helped establish the Human Genome Project. The sequence was completed in 2001. He also helped establish the journal Genomics.

In seeking support for the genome project, Victor McKusick testified before congressional committees. He would pull sequential editions of his catalog from an L.L. Bean canvas bag and stand them up on the table, according to The Washington Post. Each was thicker than the last and they stood as visual witnesses to the slow accumulation of knowledge about the mapping project.

The sons of Carroll L. and Ethel (Buzzell) McKusick, the twins along with three siblings grew up on the family dairy farm in Parkman in Piscataquis County and attended a one-room elementary school. His high school offered no science classes, according to a story published Thursday in The Washington Post.

As a young man, Victor McKusick planned to enter the ministry, but changed his mind after suffering from a severe streptococcus infection in his armpit in 1937 at the age of 15. He spent 10 weeks in Massachusetts General Hospital, where he was cured with antibiotics.

He attended Tufts University but left in 1943 before he received his degree to enroll early in the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, where he spent the rest of his career. In 1949, he married fellow physician Dr. Anne Bishop, who continues to work part time in Johns Hopkins’ Division of Rheumatology.

Victor McKusick trained as a cardiologist, but an encounter with a tall patient with an inherited disorder called Marfan syndrome altered the course of his career. He devoted his career to medical genetics in the late 1950s, a few years after DNA was discovered.

"Some of my colleagues thought I was committing professional suicide because I had a reputation in cardiology and was shifting over to focus for the most part on rare, unimportant conditions, and so forth," Victor McKusick said in an interview earlier this year with The Baltimore Sun.

Earlier this week, the University of Maine Law School announced that Victor and Anne McKusick had donated $100,000 to the scholarship fund named for his brother — the Vincent L. McKusick Diversity Fellowship Fund.

The program began last year with an initial pledge of $100,000 from Pierce Atwood LLP, the Portland-based law firm where McKusick the lawyer began his career. The program will reach out to members of Maine’s immigrant community, members of Maine’s Indian tribes and diverse applicants nationwide, according to the law school.

"I have decided to match the donation of Pierce Atwood ... out of commitment to diversity and to the welfare of my native state of Maine," Victor McKusick said in making the gift. "And, of course, I do it to honor my DNA-identical brother."

The twins in 1993 were awarded the first Maine Prize from the University of Maine System board of trustees. To be considered for the prize, an individual must have made nationally recognized contributions to quality of life and have strong ties to the state of Maine.

In addition to his brother, Victor McKusick is survived by his wife and their children: Carol Anne McKusick of Urbana, Ill.; Kenneth Andrew McKusick of Ruxton, Md.; and the Rev. Victor Wayne McKusick of Herkimer, N.Y.

Visitation is scheduled for 3 to 5 p.m. and from 7 to 9 p.m. Friday, Aug. 1, at the Ruck Towson Funeral Home in Towson, Md. A memorial service will be held at 2 p.m. Saturday, Aug. 2, at the Second Presbyterian Church of Baltimore, Md.

Interment will be at 11 a.m. Friday, Aug. 8, at Pingree Cemetery in Parkman.
Bangor Daily News, Friday, July 25, 2008,

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