Ingram, Father of Molecular Medicine, Dies at 82

MIT biology professor Vernon Ingram died this month at the age of 82 after suffering a fall. Ingram made a breakthrough discovery in 1957, when he showed exactly how a mutant gene causes sickle-cell anemia. Until his death this month, Vernon Ingram was pursuing research into Alzheimer's and Huntington's diseases.

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DEBBIE ELLIOTT, host:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Debbie Elliott.

We take a few moments now to remember the man known as the father of molecular medicine. He was MIT biology professor Vernon Ingram. He died this month at the age of 82 after suffering a fall.

Ingram made his breakthrough discovery in 1957 when he showed exactly how a mutant gene causes sickle-cell anemia, a condition that cripples millions of Africans and African-Americans, among others.

Ingram's research validated the work of James Watson and Francis Crick, who had determined the structure of DNA a few years earlier. They believed that DNA transferred information for the production of proteins in the body. Vernon Ingram confirmed this. One of his former graduate students, Professor Anthony Stretton, explains.

Professor ANTHONY STRETTON (University of Wisconsin, Madison): One change in that gene should produce one change in the protein, and that's what he found. It really was an absolutely brilliant confirmation that the model which people had about the role of what DNA was all about was true.

ELLIOTT: It was already known that sickle-cell anemia was a genetic disease. Ingram showed that the mutant gene in sickle-cell patients causes them to produce defective protein in their hemoglobin, the substance that allows red blood cells to carry oxygen through the body.

Ingram made this discovery in a bike shed turned laboratory in Cambridge, England. He had settled in England after fleeing Nazi Germany with his family. Then, in 1958, he joined the MIT faculty and later brought grad student Anthony Stretton over.

Prof. STRETTON: When he got to MIT, he had to teach, and he discovered he really liked it, and he became a superb teacher.

ELLIOTT: Vernon Ingram and his wife also served as house masters, giving special welcome to foreign students. Stretton, who now teaches at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, says his mentor never got the recognition he deserved.

Prof. STRETTON: He should have got the Nobel Prize. It was a contribution which is every bit as great as a lot of other people who got the Nobel Prize in molecular biology.

ELLIOTT: But Stretton says Ingram was modest and even chalked up some of his discoveries to dumb luck.

Prof. STRETTON: He knew what he'd done, and he knew how important it was. But he was a very modest man and, you know, and - one thing which, you know - he wrote this article on serendipity, and one thing I was really struck by is that - how generous he was to the people he worked with. I mean, he - there he was being very explicit, for example, about the role I played, you know, and it was - a lot of people don't do that. They are into self-glorification. But he's absolutely not like that. He's very, very, very generous to the people he was with. And I, you know, I respect him.

ELLIOTT: After his breakthrough on sickle-cell anemia, Vernon Ingram went on to pursue research into Alzheimer's and Huntington's diseases. He was working right up until his death.

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