Dr. William Markesbery: 1932-2010

UK center's Alzheimer's expert dies

amead@herald-leader.comFebruary 1, 2010 

Dr. William Markesbery, a world-renowned Alzheimer's researcher and longtime director of the University of Kentucky's Sanders-Brown Center on Aging, died Saturday night, UK officials said. He was 77.

UK President Lee T. Todd Jr. said that Dr. Markesbery left an "indelible mark" on the university and across the globe.

"We are saddened by the loss of a remarkable colleague, but we have no doubt that Bill Markesbery's work will live on for generations to come as we continue the work he started here almost four decades ago," Todd said in a statement.

Dr. Markesbery received numerous awards for his work, including the Irving H. Shaw Award for Distinguished Service in the Field of Health Care. Last July, he received the prestigious Khachaturian Award from the Alz heimer's Association during an international conference in Vienna, Austria.

"I am grateful to have the opportunity to take part in the investigation of the most devastating disease that affects humanity," Dr. Markesbery said in accepting the award.

In 1981, Dr. Markesbery and collaborators published the first of several studies that broke important ground in understanding Alz heimer's. They disproved the prevailing theory that the disease is caused by an accumulation of aluminum and other toxic metals in the brain. Later, they proved there was no connection between mercury and Alzheimer's.

In 1991, he and others published research showing that oxidative stress is present early in the disease.

The Journal of Alzheimer's Disease ranked him 23rd among Alzheimer's researchers worldwide.

Dr. Peter Bosomworth, chancellor emeritus of the UK Chandler Medical Center, recalled Sunday that he had known Dr. Markesbery for nearly half a century.

"He was an important part of the faculty, and I was personally proud of him," Bosomworth said. "He was involved in my personal medical care, and he was a great ... teacher."

Dr. Jay A. Perman, dean of the College of Medicine, said Dr. Markesbery had led Sanders-Brown to a position of international distinction in Alzheimer's research.

"I have lost a wonderfully warm and supportive colleague, and our community and world has lost a gifted scientist," Perman said.

Over the years, UK said, he received more grants from the National Institutes of Health than anyone at the university. The NIH funded his research for more than 30 years. He published 410 peer-reviewed scientific articles.

Dr. Markesbery also conducted research in other areas. In 1974, he was the first to describe a rare form of muscular dystrophy now called Finnish-Markesbery Disease.

Dr. Markesbery was born in Florence in Northern Kentucky and served two years in the Army before coming to UK. While stationed in Hawaii, he met Barbara Abram, who became his wife.

He received an undergraduate degree in 1960 and entered the first class of the UK College of Medicine, from which he graduated with distinction in 1964. When the Sanders-Brown Center opened in 1979, Dr. Markesbery was its first director.

Sanders-Brown became one of the first 10 federally funded Alzheimer's research centers.

In a 2006 interview, Dr. Markesbery said doctors might someday be able to identify children who will develop Alzheimer's later in life and start treating them decades before the disease manifests itself.

Even identifying the disease a few years ahead of time could help, he said.

"If you could pick up the disease five years before it shows any symptoms, you would have five years to do some kind of intervention," he said.

He also noted that researchers have come a long way.

"Back when we started, we hardly knew anything about this disease," he said.

In a 2007 interview, Dr. Markesbery talked about what potential victims could do to delay the onset of symptoms.

Exercise is important, he said, as is a low-fat diet.

More important, he said, is using your mind by participating in book clubs, working with computers, and doing crossword puzzles or other intellectual activities.

"Exercise your brain," he said. "And that's not watching television."

In addition to his wife, survivors include three daughters: Susanne Arnold, Kendall Markesbery and Allison Robbins; and a brother, Harold Markesberry.

A private service is planned with a public memorial later.

Contributions may be made to the Sanders-Brown Center on Aging and Best Friends Alzheimer's Respite and Day Care. Kerr Brothers Funeral Home is in charge of arrangements.

Reach Andy Mead at (859) 231-3319 or 1-800-950-6397, Ext. 3319.

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