Seeking Lincoln's DNA

McKusick heads panel to study feasibility

March 31, 1991|By Randi Henderson

Victor McKusick - a man who has always been in the forefront of advancing science finds himself looking back these days.

He's looking back more than a century, at one of the most celebrated characters ever to populate U.S. history Abraham Lincoln.

Last month, Dr. McKusick, professor of medical genetics at Johns Hopkins. was named to head a committee that will study the technical and ethical feasibility of examining samples of hair, bone and blood from Abraham Lincoln, to see if there is genetic material that could be cloned, so that the DNA of the 16th president could be studied.

The committee which also includes Lincoln historians, medical experts and ethicists will hold its first meeting May 2 at the National Museum of Health and Medicine, on tie grounds of Walter Reed Medical Center in Washington, where the medical relics are exhibited.

If the study is done, the primary purpose will be to determine if Lincoln was afflicted with Marfan syndrome, a genetic disorder that is characterized by long limbs, sunken eyes and sometimes life-threatening cardiac problems. Dr. McKusick, 69, began studying Marfan syndrome more than 40 years ago and is one of the world's authorities on the subject.

Abraham Lincoln and Victor McKusick. Study the two men the president acknowledged as great by historians, the doctor earning a similar judgment from his peers and it seems somehow fitting that they would some day get together.

As to the results that might come from studies of Lincoln's DNA, Dr. McKusick is hedging his bets. "I think that there's a 50-50 chance that Lincoln did have the Marfan syndrome,' he says.

Considering the issue in his book-cluttered 10th floor office at Johns Hopkins Hospital, the man who is recognized as the pioneer in mapping the human genetic-scape is much more definite when it comes to assessing what it could mean if it is found that Lincoln was a Marfan sufferer.

"I'm delighted with the renewed interest because of what it is likely to do for the understanding of the disease," Dr. McKusick explains. "I'm talking about recognition of the disease by the general public and recognition by the medical profession, which is very important. Because this kills people, and that could be prevented if it was picked up earlier."

He compares the situation to another president's serious health problem, Franklin Roosevelt's affliction with polio. "You know, we might never have had a polio vaccine by 1955 if it weren't for the fact that the president had polio," he reflects.

And he adds that just the talk of Marfan syndrome in the context of a great man has already been a boon to people now living with the disease.

"I'm delighted to see what this does for the self-esteem of patients with the Marfan syndrome and patients with genetic disorders in general," he says.

It's a positive result that might not have been forecast 30 years ago when two doctors from California and Kentucky first voiced the speculation that Lincoln had Marfan syndrome. "There was a story about it in Newsweek," Dr. McKusick recalls, "and one of the readers wrote in saying that she felt certain that the venerated Lincoln did not have such a 'loathsome' disease as the Marfan syndrome."

Dr. McKusick's voice drips disgust as he recounts the story. "I wrote in response that there was nothing more loathsome about Marfan syndrome than there was about polio or about stroke or about myocardial infarction or about sarcoma of the jaw, to mention just a few of the diseases that other presidents have had."

He concludes the story with satisfaction: "The idea that a genetic disease is loathsome is something that it's nice to be able to dissuade people from."

Others involved with the Lincoln work and familiar with Dr. McKusick's career agree that no better person could have been found to head a committee that will be dealing with sensitive issues in a variety of disciplines: not just medicine, but history, politics, ethics, sociology.

Dr. McKuslek was asked to head the committee, said Dick Levinson, community relations director of the museum, "because we wanted to send a serious message to the public about what we're doing."

Calling Dr. McKusick a "statesman of science," he added, "He's a bridge between the scientific community and the world at large. He's extremely sensitive to the ethical, historical and political questions that present themselves."

Dr. Darwin Prockop. the Philadelphia geneticist and physician who earlier this year first proposed that Lincoln's DNA be studied, calls Dr. McKusick "the ideal choice" to head an advisory panel.

"There's no question about it," Dr. Prockop said. "He has written the textbooks that all the rest of us follow on the Marfan syndrome and a lot of other diseases. What he's defined clinically has become the bible."

Cheryl Williams, president of the National Marfan Syndrome Foundation and herself a sufferer of the syndrome feels that Dr. McKusick is "the most appropriate possible choice to head this committee."

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