William R. Markesbery

17 February 2010. William R. Markesbery, or Bill, as he was affectionately known, passed away on Saturday, 30 January 2010, from complications of a lung infection at the University of Kentucky (UK) Chandler Medical Center, just across the street from the Sanders-Brown Center on Aging, where he spent the past 30+ years working diligently on research and providing patient care.

Bill was born in Florence, Kentucky (30 September 1932), where he and his brother, Harold Markesbery, who would also become an M.D., were outstanding students and high school athletes in football, baseball (Bill spent time as a pitcher in the Cincinnati Reds minor leagues), and basketball. Following his education at Florence High School, Bill completed his undergraduate degree in business and economics at UK and played basketball as a walk on for Coach Adolph Rupp (setting the stage for the recent “UK2K” Wildcat team). After graduation, Bill served in the U.S. Army for two years. While stationed in Honolulu, Hawaii, at Fort Shafter, he developed an interest in medicine while assigned to Tripler Army Hospital. More importantly, Bill met the love of his life, Barbara Abram, while in Hawaii. They married in 1958.

Bill returned to Kentucky, entered the first medical school class at UK in 1960, and graduated with distinction in 1964. He was a member of Alpha Omega Alpha. He then completed his residency at Columbia-Presbyterian Hospital (Neurological Institute) and a fellowship in neuropathology at Columbia. Bill and Barbara then moved to Rochester, New York, where he joined the faculty at the University of Rochester School of Medicine and Strong Memorial Hospital. However, Bill’s roots and love of basketball called him back to Kentucky. He joined the faculty at UK in 1972 with appointments in the Departments of Pathology (Division of Neuropathology) and Neurology. Also, given his love of sports, Bill was asked to join the UK Athletic Board.

Bill’s career as a clinician and researcher went into high gear at this time. He became the Director of the Sanders-Brown Center on Aging (SBCoA) in September of 1979 and later developed one of the first 10 Alzheimer’s Disease Research Centers (ADRCs) with a focus on the neuropathology of this disease. He worked tirelessly, regularly putting in 18-hour days, including Saturdays and holidays. He also served as Chair of Neuropathology for several years. As a result, he published more than 410 peer-reviewed manuscripts, multiple reviews, and a seminal textbook, Neuropathology of Dementing Disorders. He is also credited for his work on Markesbery-Griggs distal myopathy. Much of his work was the result of program projects and ADRC grants that were continuously funded over his career.

In recognition of his tireless efforts, Bill served on the National Institute on Aging Council, the Alzheimer’s Association Scientific Advisory Board (chair), and the Dana Foundation, and received multiple awards recognizing his work. Examples include the Khachaturian Award (Alzheimer’s Association), the Award for Meritorious Contributions to Neuropathology (American Association of Neuropathologists), the Irving H. Shaw Award for Distinguished Service in the Field of Health Care, and the UK Library Medallion for Intellectual Achievement.

Despite his work schedule, Bill was a deeply devoted father and grandfather. He was extremely proud of his three daughters and convinced his oldest to pursue a career in medicine. As a result, Susanne Markesbery Arnold brilliantly and devotedly practices medicine at the UK Markey Cancer Center. Clearly, she is “a chip off the old block.”

One of Bill’s traits was his humility, despite his success. He was devoted to his patients and students but always found, in addition to science, the time to discuss UK basketball or Major League Baseball with his colleagues. Often, there was time to enjoy a glass of good Chardonnay, classical music, books about the war in the Pacific, or go for a spin (at high speed) in his Porsche. Before his hospitalization for a fractured rib and pneumothorax (1992), Bill even occasionally played softball with SBCoA faculty and staff. As his health became an issue over the past decade and a half, he could not travel as easily. However, Bill’s enthusiasm for his work never faltered. Often, one could meet with him in his office or while he was “hunched over” his microscope to see an IV attached to his arm as part of his ongoing treatment.

His scientific colleagues will recall some of his specific research endeavors. Five outstanding areas of accomplishment (among many) come to mind. First, Bill was a leader in uncovering the role of oxidative stress and free radical biology in neurodegenerative diseases, including in lipids, proteins, and nucleic acids. With his colleagues at UK and elsewhere, he also emphasized the importance of the concept of preclinical AD. He recognized from his clinical patient care and his view through the microscope that cognitive dysfunction in aging humans is often multifactorial, and that these brain diseases often exist in a complex mixture in the brain. In the interim, he joined several of his colleagues and helped to craft the Consensus Recommendations for the Postmortem Diagnosis of AD in 1997. Finally, Bill led the charge with his UK colleagues and volunteers in acknowledging the need for rigorous data management, quantitative neuropathology, and building community trust in conducting longitudinal studies on brain aging (as epitomized in his work on the Georgia Centenarian, Religious Orders, Nun, and Biologically Resilient Older Adults in Neurological Studies projects). In terms of his approach as a scientist, Dr. William R. Markesbery epitomized the role of the gentleman scientist and clinician.

His insights, devotion, and knowledge will be greatly missed by his family, patients, students, and colleagues.—Frederick Schmitt, with contributions by Pete Nelson and Paula Thomason.


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