Leon Rosenberg, pioneering human geneticist, dies at 89

Leon E. Rosenberg, a noted physician and geneticist who served as dean of Yale University School of Medicine, oversaw research at pharmaceutical giant Bristol-Myers Squibb and later chronicled his lifelong struggle with bipolar disorder, writing about the condition in an effort to remove stigma. Mental illness, died July 22 at his home in Lawrenceville, New Jersey He was 89 years old.

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

When Dr. Rosenberg decided to major in human genetics in the early 1960s, motivated by his expertise similar to that of diagnosing rare genetic disorders in children, the field did not exist. It was generally considered a small part of medicine – hardly worthy of following an ambitious young doctor-scientist.

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

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

Former doctoral student Huntington F. Geneticist and Chief Scientific Officer at Genome Medical. “Almost everything has at least something to do with genetics and genomics, and he saw that human genes could not be placed under another wing. He deserved to be on his own.”

While hopping between the hospital and the lab, Dr. Rosenberg treated patients as Ruby, an 8-month-old comatose boy. In the late 1960s, Robbie was diagnosed with methylmalonic acid, or MMA — where the body struggles to break down certain fats and proteins — and developed a new way to manage the disorder through vitamin B12 supplementation. He went on to call Robbie’s name for decades, telling students the story of his former patient While he declared that clinical care and scientific research are closely linked.

“He was an extraordinary teacher,” he said. Harold T. Shapiro, an economist at Princeton University and a former president of the university who helped put Dr. Rosenberg at the school. “He has been persistent, willing to talk to students at length” about careers in medicine, Shapiro added.

Despite maintaining a busy schedule, Dr. Rosenberg experienced periods of major depression, which he revealed in a 2002 article, “Brainsick” Published in Cerebrum Magazine and cited by Baltimore Sun. Even after counting nearly 300 scientific papers, he said, it was probably the most important thing he ever published.

As revealed by Dr. Rosenberg in his article and in his self-published memoir, Genes, Medicine, Mood, he attempted to treat his depression with Prozac before attempting suicide in 1998, around the time he began teaching at Princeton University.

His wife and one of his daughters took him to the hospital, and one of his former Yale students, a doctor, examined him. The doctor said to him, “No one will believe that you, of all people, would attempt suicide.”

Dr. Rosenberg was diagnosed with bipolar disorder and said he realized he was “sick of mind” when he attempted suicide.

“I see my suicide attempt as the end result of mental illness the same way I see my heart attack as the end result of coronary artery disease,” he wrote. “Both are potentially fatal, both have known risk factors, both are major public health problems, both are treatable and preventable, and both generate fear and grief. But the shame associated with them is very different. Heart attack victims are comforted (“Isn’t that unfortunate?” ”); suicide victims are cursed (“How could he?”).

After he was treated with electroconvulsive therapy and put on a low dose of lithium, he said he no longer suffered from depression and found his professional productivity to be undiminished. Encouraged by his psychiatrist, colleagues, and his wife, he began talking openly about his diagnosis — and felt, as his wife said in a phone interview, “mental illness was sweeping under the rug.”

At times, he would show his case history to his students, causing some of them to cry as he discussed his suicide attempt and bipolar disorder.

“It makes no sense to allow stigma, which is based on its basic premise that people with mental illness are weak, to make people with mental illness unwilling to be diagnosed,” he wrote in the article. “It’s time for me and the other doctors to say it.”

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

“He told me his mother had a deformed thumb – I had an accident,” his wife said. “All through his childhood, he wanted to become 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 disorders, before joining the Yale University faculty in 1965.

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

He was called to testify about an anti-abortion bill with seven other physicians, and Dr. Rosenberg was the only physician to have condemned the proposed legislation, according to The New York Times Report. Rebuking 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 prejudices”.

‘Don’t ask science and medicine to help justify’ the abortion ban He told the committee, “Because they can’t. Ask your conscience, or your minister, or your priest, or your rabbi, or even your God, for that matter lies within their domain.” The bill died before it reached the Senate floor.

Beginning in 1984, Dr. Rosenberg served as dean of the Yale University School of Medicine, leading an institution of more than 900 full-time faculty members while raising funds, recruiting professors, and launching a new Office of Minority Affairs, as part of his efforts to support and support the number of non-white students and faculty At school. He left after seven years to become Chief Scientific Officer of Bristol-Myers Squibb.

The job provided him with an opportunity to help develop new medical treatments and strengthen links between academia and the pharmaceutical industry. But he “found that the work culture is not as comfortable as that found in academia,” he recalls biographical essay, “And I barely managed to reach mandatory retirement at age 65.” Soon he was appointed to Princeton University as Professor of Molecular Biology and Professor.

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

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, the survivors included three children from his first marriage, Robert Rosenberg of Reading, Pennsylvania, Diana Clark of North Clarendon, Vato, and David Koresh of San Jose, Costa Rica; a daughter from his second marriage, Alexa Rosenberg of Washington; brother; Six grandchildren and one great-grandson.

Addressing the American Society of Human Genetics after being elected chair of the group, Dr. Rosenberg addressed his “exhausted, wary, and anxious” colleagues, offering some career and life advice:

When your experiments don’t work, your grant deadline approaches, or your patients appear ungrateful, don’t overburden yourself. [your young colleagues]. Lock yourself in the closet, run, complain to your husband, have a beer, but don’t scare the kids. They may take you seriously. If you must say it as it is, please be sure to give equal time to the privileges and pleasures of academic life, to the dazzling sense of luxury that follows a scientific discovery, and to the excitement we each know lie behind. Our current prospects.