On May 20, at age 93, Robert Davis Terry passed away in Carlsbad, California. Terry had been in declining health for some time, according to Michael Shelanski of Columbia University, New York, an early trainee and longtime friend. During Shelanski’s last dinner visit with Terry, in 2016, Terry was discussing neuropathology and recent events. “He was interested in everything, but had become frail,” Shelanski said. Many of Terry’s trainees stayed close with him and made “pilgrimages” to Carlsbad after Terry retired in 1994.
Terry made his mark in Alzheimer’s research in the 1960s, soon after leaving Montefiore Hospital in the Bronx, New York, to join the pathology department at Albert Einstein College of Medicine under Saul Korey. Terry trained two generations of neuropathologists working in the field of neurodegeneration, including, among many others, Bernardino Ghetti, Richard DeTeresa, Dikran Horoupian, James Goldman, Roy Weller, Robert Murray, Kinuko Suzuki, Larry Hansen, and Dennis Dickson, who published a tribute to Terry 12 years ago (Dickson, 2005).
Already looking beyond pathology at that time, Terry formed multidisciplinary research teams right away. He recruited basic scientists such as Henry Wisniewski from Poland, Peter Davies from the U.K., Khalid Iqbal, and others to enable broad-based research on neurologic disease from all available scientific angles. “Bob worked closely with people who were cell biologists and biochemists at a time when most neuropathologists only looked at tissue. He was a nucleating force in the field,” Shelanski told Alzforum. Terry obtained the first NIH grant on Alzheimer’s disease, according to Zaven Khachaturian, and he held on to it for more than 30 years.
Top row, from left: Steven Shayvitz, Michael Shelanski, Richard Snyder, John Prineas, Carlos Araoz. Middle row, from left: Roy Weller, Henryk Wisniewski, Robert Terry, John Andrews, Jan Leestma, Ivan Herzog. Seated, from left: Kinuko Suzuki, Marlene Lengner, Krystyna Wisniewska, Kytja Voeller, and Anne Johnson. Of these people in Terry’s lab in 1968, Suzuki, Wisniewski, Johnson, Weller, and Shelanski worked extensively in Alzheimer’s disease. [Courtesy of Michael Shelanski.]
Early on at Einstein, Terry applied electron microscopy to the study of neurologic disease, characterizing first the ultrastructure of Tay-Sachs disease and then of AD. His images were so striking that New York City’s Museum of Modern Art included one on Tay-Sachs in a 1967 exhibition called “Once Invisible” (view image in the Photo Gallery at bottom of page on university website; item 78 in MoMA’s press release).
In Alzheimer’s disease, Terry and colleagues conducted electron microscopy and histochemical analyses of both amyloid plaques and the paired helical filaments that make up neurofibrillary tangles. “They realized very early on that AD had unique structures,” Shelanski said. “Bob performed the most detailed and sophisticated ultrastructural studies of plaques and tangles … utilizing the most advanced technology at the time,” Eliezer Masliah, now at National Institute on Aging, wrote to Alzforum (see full comment below).
Shelanski also remembers “hilarious times” in his early years with Terry, such as a period in 1966, when Terry’s friend, the late British neurologist Oliver Sacks, worked in the lab after finishing medical school at Oxford. “Oliver used to show up with a big beard and his motorcycle helmet, and Bob soon decided lab work was not Oliver’s forte,” Shelanski said. A newspaper profile of Sacks, who went on to become a revered diagnostician and writer, dryly notes a hamburger in a centrifuge and cheerfully cites Terry’s appraisal of Sacks’ lab work as being “an absolute disaster” (The New York Times, 1991).
Also at Einstein, Terry focused the attention of Robert Katzman, who at the time was studying the blood-brain barrier, toward Alzheimer’s. From then on, the two Bobs collaborated closely. This led to their realization, in the mid-’70s, that dementia in old people was the common form of Alzheimer’s disease. Until then, AD had been considered a rare pre-senile condition, and age-related dementia a cerebrovascular problem (see AD Research Timeline).
Bob Terry's lab in 1990 at UCSD. From left: Rich DeTeresa, Larry Hansen, Ellie Michaels, Terry, Eliezer Masliah, Margaret Mallory, Michael Alford (research associate). [Courtesy of Eliezer Masliah].
After 30 years in New York, Terry followed Katzman to the University of California, San Diego, to lead the neuropathology core at the newly inaugurated Alzheimer’s Disease Research Center, which Katzman was directing. This was one of five founding centers with which the NIA started its centers program (Oct 2014 news). At UCSD, Terry focused first — along with DeTeresa, who had moved out from Einstein — on developing a method to count neurons in the aging human cortex in AD in order to document neuronal loss in AD. He also trained, among others, Larry Hanson and Masliah. With Hanson, he described the Lewy body variant of AD. Later, using synaptophysin immunohistochemistry paired with confocal microscopy in postmortem AD brain, he and Masliah showed that synapse loss correlates more tightly with cognitive decline than amyloid plaques do (Alzheimer’s Research Timeline).
Among other honors, Terry won the inaugural Potamkin Prize for Research in Pick’s, Alzheimer’s, and related diseases in 1988, and in 1990, the MetLife Foundation’s Award for Medical Research in Alzheimer’s Disease.
In 1994, Terry accepted a retirement buyout from the University of California, but according to his UCSD faculty page, he kept visiting the lab daily for many more years. “He constantly told me that he regretted having retired,” said Shelanski. To peruse Terry’s notable papers, see here and here.
In 2006, Terry spoke, indeed entertained the crowd, at the Alzheimer Centennial conference, held in Tuebingen, Germany, in the same auditorium where Alois Alzheimer had first presented the case of Auguste D to his colleagues at the time (Nov 2006 news).
Robert D. Terry was born in 1924 in Hartford, Connecticut. He started premed studies at Williams College, but after the Pearl Harbor attack left school to join the Army 82nd Airborne Division paratroopers. Terry went on active duty in 1943, at age 19, and later parachuted into the Battle of the Bulge on the war’s Western front, in the Ardennes region. “Throughout his life, he felt a great closeness to anyone who had also been a paratrooper,” Shelanski told Alzforum. After the war, Terry got rejected by numerous medical schools before graduating from Albany Medical College.
Terry was courteous, strikingly good looking, and tough. Shelanski recalled a pathology meeting near Yale in the late 1960s, where their session ran too long in a small room off a big ballroom. A wedding was going on in the ballroom, and the bride was clearly from a mafia family, Shelanski said. In front of the doors were two large men who were there to make sure there would be no disturbance. “When we tried to leave our room, they blocked us. Bob was a short guy. He went right up to them and said, ‘I am coming out now.’ They let us out,” Shelanski said.
Terry had a reputation for pulling no punches in discussions and at conferences. “If someone got up and asked a question, and Bob’s voice grew louder and his face got a little red, you knew the person would have a hard time defending their question,” said Douglas Galasko, who joined UCSD two years after Terry and collaborated with him there. “Bob was mercurial and could scorch anybody,” Shelanski agreed, adding “At 44, he was told he had hypertension and had to control his temper. And he did.”
Terry is survived by his son, artist Nick Terry, of Marfa, Texas.—Gabrielle Strobel
- At Birthday Symposium, Massachusetts ADRC Looks to Future With New Data
- Tuebingen: Researchers Reminisce, Predict at Alzheimer Centennial
- Dickson DW. A tribute to a neuropathologist, Robert D. Terry. Alzheimers Dement. 2005 Jul;1(1):74-6. PubMed.
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