Lives of the Lasker laureates McKusick: Dr. Victor A. McKusick, the Hopkins gene pioneer, is a Maine dairyman's son who rose early and worked late.

September 24, 1997|By Frank D. Roylance | Frank D. Roylance,SUN STAFF

The name of Dr. Anne B. McKusick, wife of Lasker Award winner Dr. Victor A. McKusick, was misstated in yesterday's editions.

The Sun regrets the errors.

Maybe it was discipline imposed by cold early mornings and the cows waiting impatiently in his father's dairy barn in Maine.

Or maybe it is just genetic.

In either case, Dr. Victor A. McKusick, 75, can't seem to retire or even slow down after a long career at Johns Hopkins School of Medicine. That career has included the founding of Hopkins' Division of Medical Genetics, and quietly convincing the world that by cataloging human genes and the maladies they cause, doctors could discover the nature of the defect in the DNA molecule, and the means to correct it.

FOR THE RECORD - CORRECTION

"I am cutting back," McKusick said wryly in a 10th-floor office at Hopkins crammed with books and medical journals. "I only work half-days now. Twelve hours."

McKusick's work in medical genetics will be honored Friday in New York with the presentation of the Albert Lasker Award for Special Achievement in Medical Science.

The prize, which includes a $25,000 honorarium, is considered one of the most prestigious in medicine. Yet McKusick sought to downplay it, suggesting that its prestige is in part a product of well-crafted "ballyhoo."

"Isn't that like Victor to come up with some other explanation other than his own excellence?" said Dr. Francis Collins, who heads the Human Genome Project at the National Institutes of Health. He described McKusick as a "humble, delightful, articulate historian of the whole enterprise. He would be the last person to promote himself."

The Lasker Award, Collins said, "is viewed as the most highly prestigious medical award given in the U.S. It is a launching pad for the Nobel [Prize]. And with a very impressive nominating committee you don't get on the short list without a lot of good reasons."

As the mysteries of many infectious and nutritional diseases have been solved, what remain are the chronic disorders with genetic origins. So, medical genetics has emerged in the last decade or two as the central science cutting across all medical disciplines.

"In the research lab, no matter what you are studying, the approach is through molecular genetics," Collins said. "And the advance that's coming in the next 10 to 15 years is an invasion of clinical medicine of all sorts by medical genetics as well."

Whether they are looking at cancer, diabetes, hypertension, asthma, or even mental illness, doctors will have to incorporate genetic screening and familial histories into their daily work.

There is probably no one on the planet who understands better what makes McKusick run -- and keep on running -- than his twin brother, Vincent.

Older by 20 minutes, Vincent McKusick retired in 1992 after 15 years as the chief justice of the Maine Supreme Judicial Court.

He, too, never stops. He still goes to work every day as counsel to his old law firm, Pierce Atwood of Portland. And he serves as a master and arbitrator, including assignments from the U.S. Supreme Court to sit as a master in suits between states.

"I think our approach to law and medicine is basically very much the same," Judge McKusick said. "We enjoy studying and I think we are both hard workers, which we learned on a dairy farm where we grew up." Or inherited. Their father, too, was driven -- a teacher and principal until illness turned him to dairy farming. He later became a state senator and chairman of the state Board of Education.

Dr. McKusick's wife of 48 years, Dr. Carol Anne McKusick, confirmed that her husband takes his computer, fax machine and his work with him on their annual summer retreat to their 18th-century farm in Nova Scotia.

"I don't think you could possibly get him to leave it behind," said Carol McKusick, a retired specialist in rheumatoid arthritis. "He's keeping up his 'Mendelian Inheritance in Man' [the computerized reference that catalogs discoveries linking specific human genes with the maladies they cause]. It requires constant input."

Even so, she said, he manages to play tennis and pick berries. "It's quite a change of pace."

The McKusicks' three children have found their own paces, none of them in their father's footsteps. Victor Wayne McKusick, 33, is a Presbyterian minister with a parish in northeast Pennsylvania. Kenneth Andrew McKusick, 34, is an actuary and rising executive at Monumental Life Insurance in Baltimore.

Daughter Carol Anne McKusick, 43, is renovating a house on Light Street in South Baltimore.

McKusick's thin, grandfatherly form is topped by a thin fuzz of white hair. Age has bent him a bit, but he brims with energy behind his gold eyeglass frames and seems to be in constant motion. He is an "almost pathologically compulsive reader," he said, and rises daily by 5 a.m.

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