Leon Rosenberg, pioneering human geneticist, dies at 89

Leon E. Rosenberg, a renowned physician and geneticist who served as Dean of Yale School of Medicine, oversaw research at pharmaceutical giant Bristol-Myers Squibb and later chronicled his lifelong struggle with bipolar disorder, writing on the condition in an effort to destigmatize mental illness, died July 22 at his home in Lawrenceville, NJ He was 89 years old.

The cause was pneumonia, said his wife, Diane Drobnis Rosenberg. He had squamous cell carcinoma, a form of skin cancer.

When Dr. Rosenberg decided to specialize in human genetics in the early 1960s, motivated by his detective experience in diagnosing rare inherited disorders in children, the field barely existed. It was generally considered a niche, a minor part of medicine – hardly worth pursuing for an ambitious young doctor-scientist.

“Medical genetics? There is no such field! a Yale University nephrologist told him.

Yet Dr. Rosenberg became a leading figure in what is now a sprawling field of study, conducting influential research into metabolic disorders and educating generations of scientists. In a five-decade teaching career, he started at Yale, detoured into the pharmaceutical industry, and spent nearly 20 years at Princeton University, teaching undergraduates and then reshaping the high school science curriculum at Princeton Day School before retiring in 2018.

“He was truly a visionary who recognized much, much, much earlier than almost anyone that genetics – and now genomics – would play a role in medicine that would stand on its own,” said his former PhD student. Huntington F. Willard, a geneticist and scientific director of Genome Medical. “Almost everything has at least some connection to genetics and genomics, and he understood that human genetics could not be relegated to another wing. He deserved to be alone. »

Moving between the hospital and the lab, Dr. Rosenberg treated patients like Robby, an 8-month-old boy in a coma. In the late 1960s, he diagnosed Robby with methylmalonic acidemia, or MMA – in which the body struggles to break down certain fats and proteins – and developed a new way to manage the disorder through vitamin B12 supplements. . He continued to invoke Robby’s name for decades, telling students the story of his former patient while stating that clinical care and scientific research were inextricably linked.

“He was an amazing teacher,” said Harold T. Shapiro, a Princeton economist and former college president who helped recruit Dr. Rosenberg to the school. “He was tireless,” Shapiro added, “in his willingness to speak extensively to students” about careers in medicine.

Although he maintained a busy schedule, Dr. Rosenberg suffered from periods of major depression, which he revealed in a 2002 essay, “Headache”, which was published in Cerebrum magazine and excerpted by baltimore sun. Even counting some 300 scientific papers, it was perhaps the most important thing he ever published, he said.

As Dr. Rosenberg revealed in the essay and in a self-published memoir, “Genes, Medicine, Moods,” he attempted to treat his depression with Prozac before attempting suicide in about 1998. when he started teaching at Princeton.

Taken to the hospital by his wife and one of his daughters, he was examined by one of his former Yale students, a doctor. “No one will believe that you, of all people, would try to kill yourself,” the doctor told him.

Dr Rosenberg was diagnosed with bipolar disorder and said he realized he had ‘brain sickness’ when he attempted suicide.

“I view my suicide attempt as the end result of mental illness the same way I view a heart attack as the end result of coronary heart disease,” he wrote. “Both are life-threatening, both have known risk factors, both are major public health concerns, both are treatable and preventable, and both generate fear and grief. But the shame associated with them differs greatly. Heart attack victims are consoled (“Isn’t that too bad?”); suicides are cursed (“How could he?”).

Treated with electroconvulsive therapy and put on a low dose of lithium, he says he no longer suffers from depression and regains his professional productivity intact. With encouragement from his psychiatrist, colleagues and wife, he began to speak openly about his diagnosis – feeling, as his wife put it in a telephone interview, “that mental illness was being swept under the carpet”.

At times, he presented his case history to his students, bringing some of them to tears as he discussed his suicide attempt and bipolar disorder.

“It makes no sense to allow stigma, the underlying premise of which is that people with mental illness are weak, to influence those affected not to want to be diagnosed,” he writes in the test. “It’s time for me and other doctors to say so.”

The second of three sons, Leon Emanuel Rosenberg was born in Madison, Wisconsin on March 3, 1933, and grew up in nearby Waunakee. His parents were Russian Jewish immigrants; her father ran a general store and her mother was a homemaker.

“He told me his mum had a deformed thumb – she had been in an accident,” his wife said. “All his childhood, he wanted to be a surgeon so he could fix it.”

Dr. Rosenberg graduated summa cum laude from the University of Wisconsin in 1954 and received his medical degree from the university in 1957, completing his internship at Columbia-Presbyterian Medical Center in New York. He worked for six years at the National Cancer Institute, where he began treating children with rare genetic diseases, before joining Yale faculty in 1965.

By 1972, he had become the founding chairman of the school’s human genetics department. He later served as president of the American Society of Human Genetics, and in 1981 made headlines when he defended abortion rights at a Senate subcommittee hearing.

Asked to testify about an anti-abortion bill with seven other doctors, Dr. Rosenberg was the only doctor to condemn the bill, according to a New York Times report. In a rebuke to his colleagues, he said there was no scientific evidence that human life begins at conception and insisted that scientists who claimed otherwise had fallen prey to ‘personal bias’ .

“Don’t ask science and medicine to help justify” an abortion ban, he told the committee, “because they can’t. Ask your conscience, your minister, your priest, your rabbi, or even your God, for it is in their domain that this matter lies. The bill died before reaching the Senate floor.

Beginning in 1984, Dr. Rosenberg served as Dean of Yale Medical School, leading an institution of more than 900 full-time faculty members while raising funds, recruiting faculty, and launching a new Office of Minority Affairs, as part of its efforts to support and strengthen the number of non-white students and faculty at the school. He left after seven years to become Scientific Director of Bristol-Myers Squibb.

The work offered him a chance to help develop new medical treatments and foster links between academia and the pharmaceutical industry. But he “found the business culture not nearly as comfortable as that of academia,” he recalls in an autobiographical essay, “and barely made it to mandatory retirement at age 65.” He was soon hired at Princeton as a senior molecular biologist and professor.

Dr. Rosenberg’s honors included the Kober Medal from the Association of American Physicians.

His marriage to Elaine Lewis ended in divorce. In 1979 he married Diane Drobnis, editor of medical journals and textbooks, with whom he wrote his own textbook, “Human Genes and Genomes”.

In addition to his wife, of Lawrenceville, survivors include three children from his first marriage, Robert Rosenberg of Reading, Pennsylvania, Diana Clark of North Clarendon, Vt., and David Korish of San José, Costa Rica; a daughter from his second marriage, Alexa Rosenberg of Washington; a brother; six grandchildren; and a great-grandson.

Giving a speech to the American Society of Human Genetics after being elected president of the group, Dr. Rosenberg addressed his “tired, wary and worried” colleagues, offering some career and life advice:

“When your experiments aren’t working, or your grant deadline is approaching, or your patients seem ungrateful, don’t offload yourself for [your young colleagues]. Lock yourself in the closet, jog, complain to your spouse, have a beer, but don’t scare the kids. They might just take you seriously. If you must tell it like it is, be sure to give equal consideration to the privileges and pleasures of university life, the dazzling sense of well-being that follows scientific discovery, and the excitement that each of us knows how to be beyond our current horizons.

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