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Leon Rosenberg in a grey sports coat
Leon Rosenberg in a grey sports coat

Physician and Geneticist Leon Rosenberg Dies at 89

He advanced the field of medical genetics, spoke out about reducing the stigma associated with mental illness, and captured attention for asserting that scientific evidence failed to demonstrate that life begins at conception.

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Andy Carstens

Andy Carstens is a current contributor and past intern at The Scientist. He has a bachelor’s degree in chemical engineering from the Georgia Institute of Technology and a master’s in science writing from Johns Hopkins University. Andy’s work has also appeared in Audubon, Slate, Them, and Aidsmap.

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ABOVE: Leon Rosenberg Princeton University, Denise Applewhite

Renowned physician and medical geneticist Leon Rosenberg, known for clarifying the biochemical basis of some metabolic disorders, died on July 22. His wife, Diane Drobnis Rosenberg, tells The Washington Post that her husband died of pneumonia at home in Lawrenceville, New Jersey.

“He really was a visionary who recognized much, much, much earlier than almost everyone else that genetics—and now genomics—would play a role in medicine that would stand on its own,” Huntington Willard, Rosenberg’s former PhD student, now a geneticist at Genome Medical, tells the Post

Rosenberg was born on March 3, 1933 in Madison, Wisconsin, and grew up in the nearby suburb of Waunakee, reports the Post. He graduated in 1957 with an MD from the University of Wisconsin, where he’d also earned his bachelor’s, according to the outlet. After completing his medical internship, he treated children with genetic disorders at the National Cancer Institute for six years.

In 1965, Rosenberg’s genetics career took him to Yale, where in 1972, he founded the first human genetics department in the US. He went on to serve as the School of Medicine’s dean between 1984 and 1991, during which time he created the Office of Minority Affairs to alleviate racial disparities and increase the school’s attendance by minorities, according to a Yale announcement.

In 1981, Rosenberg’s career brought him into the media spotlight after a Senate subcommittee held a hearing concerning a proposed anti-abortion bill. During his testimony, Rosenberg  vehemently denounced the idea that scientific evidence showed that life began at conception, The New York Times reported at the time. “Don’t ask science and medicine to help justify” banning access to abortions, the Post reports he told the committee, “because they cannot. Ask your conscience, your minister, your priest, your rabbi, or even your God, because it is in their domain that this matter resides.” The bill subsequently died.

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In 1991, Rosenberg left academia for a few years to lead Bristol-Myers Squibb’s Pharmaceutical Research Institute, but in 1998, he returned to become a professor in Princeton’s Department of Molecular Biology, Yale’s release states. “He was an extraordinary teacher,” Harold Shapiro, a colleague who helped recruit Rosenberg to Princeton, tells the Post, adding that “he was untiring in his willingness to speak to students at length” about their careers.

Despite coauthoring hundreds of scientific papers, Rosenberg considered a personal essay entitled “Brainsick” as one of his most important publications, the Post reports. The essay recounts his 1998 suicide attempt and his battle with bipolar disorder. In the essay, he argued that the shame often associated with mental illness and its treatment is detrimental. “It makes no sense to allow stigma, whose underlying premise is that people with mental illness are weak, to cow affected people into being unwilling to be diagnosed,” he wrote.

His career saw numerous accomplishments: Rosenberg’s research helped explain the genetic basis of metabolic disorders that can cause ketoacidosis and hyperammonemia, and his work helped pave the way for therapies for people with enzymatic deficiencies, according to Yale’s release. For example, his research team found that Vitamin B supplements could reverse the effects of the rare genetic condition homocystinuria, which renders the body unable to process the amino acid methionine.

Such discoveries led to numerous accolades, including the Borden Award from the American Academy of Pediatrics and the McKusick Leadership Award from the American Society for Human Genetics, as well as appointments to the Institute of Medicine and the National Academy of Sciences, according to the release.

Rosenberg is survived by three children from a previous marriage, his wife, and their daughter Alexa, as well as by a brother, six grandchildren, and a great-grandson.

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