Leon E. Rosenberg, geneticist who wrote about his depression, dies at age 89


dr. Leon E. Rosenberg, who spent decades pioneering medical genetics, revealed that he had struggled with manic depression for just as long, then urged doctors to be more open about their own mental health. , died on July 22 at his home in Lawrenceville, NJ. He was 89.

His wife, Diane Drobnis Rosenberg, said the cause was pneumonia.

dr. Rosenberg straddled the worlds of clinical and laboratory medicine. He called himself a “physician-scientist” whose research methods began and ended at the bedside of a patient with an undiagnosed condition, which he then tried to define and treat.

From the early 1960s, he specialized in hereditary metabolic disorders – cases where the body cannot process certain compounds, which then accumulate and poison a patient.

Most of his patients were children, including one of his first, a 9-year-old boy named Steven, whose skeletal muscles are rapidly wasting away. dr. Rosenberg, then a fellow at the National Institutes of Health, found nothing wrong except a high level of amino acids in Steven’s urine. He interviewed Steven’s parents, who said they had had two other children with similar conditions, both of whom had died. Steven died not long after.

“I couldn’t change the course of Steven’s disease,” Dr. Rosenberg in a 2014 article, “But he changed the course of my professional life. He showed me that asking research questions based on seeing patients was akin to medical detective work. More importantly, he sparked my interest in genetic disorders and fueled it.”

dr. Rosenberg moved to the Yale School of Medicine in 1965, with the intention of solving mysteries like Steven’s – which he did many times. He was the founding chairman of the school’s department of human genetics and later the school’s chairman.

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He reached the pinnacle of his profession, serving on boards of directors and joining the National Academy of Sciences. In 1989, he was nominated to lead the National Institutes of Health along with Dr. Anthony Fauci.

But, as Dr. Rosenberg revealed much later, Steven’s case also came not long after his own first episode of crippling depression, which he called his “unwanted guest.” His first months at the National Institutes of Health had been difficult; he felt like a failure and wanted to leave the study altogether.

Although similar episodes happened later, often around major career changes, he never spoke of them or sought treatment until he attempted suicide in 1998. His doctor diagnosed bipolar II disorder and Dr. Rosenberg underwent electroshock therapy and took lithium.

Doctors can suffer from depression just like anyone else, but Dr. Rosenberg was the rare physician to speak about it openly—first in classroom and professional lectures, then in a series of articles, and finally in a book, “Genes, Medicines, Moods: A Memoir of Success and Struggle” (2020).

He called on his fellow doctors to speak out for themselves as well as for their families, colleagues and patients.

“The list of writers who have described their suicide attempts and suicidal thoughts is long and illustrious,” he wrote in a 2002 article. “Yet doctors and scientists, who commit and attempt suicide at least as often as artists, writers, politicians and business leaders are , remarkably quiet.”

Several relatives of Dr. Rosenberg had similarly suffered from mental illness, and he marveled at the coincidence that his professional career and personal struggles both revolved around hereditary conditions.

“I am proof,” he wrote in his memoir, “that it is possible to have a highly successful career in medicine and science while struggling with a complex, serious mental illness.”

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Leon Emanuel Rosenberg was born on March 3, 1933 in Madison, Wisconsin. Both of his parents, Abraham and Celia (Mazursky) Rosenberg, had fled pogroms in what is now Belarus, although they didn’t meet until they settled in Waunakee, a Madison. suburb.

After working as a peddler for a while, Abraham made enough money to open his own shop. He learned English quickly and even perfected a rural Wisconsin accent, which helped him deal with his clients. Celia, a housewife, kept her thick Yiddish accent.

A childhood accident involving a mill on Celia’s family farm had disfigured her left hand, rendering all but her thumb and forefinger useless. “Sometime around age 5,” wrote Dr. Rosenberg in his memoir, “while holding her left hand in mine, I told her I intended to become a doctor so I could fix her hand.”

Leon was an exemplary student: he was a farewell teacher from his high school and graduated summa cum laude from the University of Wisconsin, where he graduated in 1954 and received his medical degree in 1957. He interned at NewYork-Presbyterian Hospital before moving to the National Institutes of Health as a research fellow in 1959.

His first marriage, to Elaine Lewis, ended in divorce. Along with his wife, he is survived by his brother, Irwin, the former dean of the School of Nutrition Science and Policy at Tufts University; his sons, Robert Rosenberg and David Korish; his daughters, Diana Clark and Alexa Rosenberg; six grandchildren; and a great-grandchild.

While studying at Yale, Dr. Rosenberg researches hereditary metabolic disorders, despite peer skepticism about the basis of such work. “Don’t be silly,” he recalled being told by a Yale nephrologist. “There’s no such thing.”

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dr. Rosenberg proved him wrong. He filled lectures with case studies of children—Steven followed, of course, by Dana, Lorraine, Robby, and others—presenting unexplained conditions, which he repeatedly showed were caused by their bodies’ inability to metabolize various acids, and which are often easily overcome. treated.

His research brought him public fame, both as a researcher and an advocate for justice in medicine. As dean of the Yale School of Medicine from 1984 to 1991, he made it easier for people of color and women to advance to higher faculty positions, and placed students as volunteers in New Haven public schools.

He left Yale in 1991 to become Chief Science Officer at Bristol Myers Squibb. In 1998, he moved to Princeton University to teach molecular biology, with a joint tenure, also as a lecturer, at the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs (now the Princeton School of Public and International Affairs).

dr. Rosenberg made national headlines in 1981 when he testified before a Senate subcommittee on a bill that would define life as beginning at conception, effectively destroying Roe v. Wade. Of the eight doctors invited to speak, he was the only one who disagreed with the bill’s premise — and he said it forcefully.

“Don’t ask science or medicine to justify that course, because they can’t,” he said. “Ask your conscience, your minister, your priest, your rabbi, or even your god, for it is in their domain that this matter takes place.”

The bill failed shortly afterwards.

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