Dr. Flexner had suffered a major stroke on Monday. But only days before he had been in the lab with his wife and colleague of nearly 60 years, Dr. Josefa (Pepita) Barba Gose Flexner (pictured at right with Dr. Louis Flexner in a 1958 photo), continuing their research on brain function.
Dr. Flexner's career has been a celebrated example of life-long scientific productivity, as he continued to work, teach and publish for almost 25 years after his mandatory retirement at 70. In a 1991 interview with Lorraine Hanaway for the Institute on Aging Newsletter, Dr. Flexner summed up whimsically, "I teach. I do research. I do the same amount of teaching in histology as the regular staff members do, and I don't get paid for it because I don't want to get paid for it." Dr. Robert Austrian--now an emeritus professor of research medicine, recalls his former teacher as outspoken, fearless and with a "marvelous sense of humor." He also recalled Dr. Flexner's winning a teaching award at the age of 90 from the students at the medical school.
A man of numerous honors, Dr. Flexner was a member of the National Academy of Sciences, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and the American Philosophical Society among many others. He received the Weinstein Award in 1957 in recognition of his work on the development of the central nervous system, and in 1974 he was awarded an honorary degree by the University for his "unremitting pursuit of the highest ideals of scholarship" and his "uncompromising standards of research and teaching." Another Penn tribute was the establishment of the Louis B. Flexner Lectureship, one of the signal gatherings of researchers in the field each year.
Louis Barkhouse Flexner was born January 7, 1902, in Louisville, Kentucky, into a family whose name had been made doubly famous by his two scientist uncles, the Drs. Simon Flexner and Abraham Flexner. The latter, as the author of a sweeping study on reform of medical education, The Flexner Report, was known as the "father of modern medicine." The former was a Penn professor of pathology who became the first director of the Rockefeller Institute of Medical Research (now Rockefeller University). Dr. Simon Flexner's influence was demonstrated early, when the young Louis Flexner, at 7, won a Louisville newspaper's writing contest on "How I Intend to Earn My Living" with an essay on his intention to cure leprosy.
He took his B.S. from Chicago in 1923 and his M.D. at Johns Hopkins in 1927. From 1930 to 1939 he was an instructor and associate at Hopkins' medical school, with a year out in 1933-34 at the department of physiology at Cambridge University. In 1939 he joined the department of embryology at the Carnegie Institution of Washington, and remained there until 1951 when the Flexners came to PennMed, he as professor and chairman of the anatomy department and she as a research associate.
(The Flexners had met at Hopkins, where she was a research associate in biochemistry in 1930-31. A Catalan who had studied at Barcelona and had taken her doctorate in pharmacy at Madrid, she had also studied pharmacology in England before coming to the U.S. for a year. Their long partnership is also explored in the Hanaway interview cited above, covering some of the range of research they have engaged in: from the early period, the breakthrough discovery that the brain synthesized proteins at a very high rather than a low rate as had been believed and then the making of "a stir" with the proof of a link be-tween protein synthesis and learning and re-membering...and, in later life, studies in the formation of memory sites outside the hippocampus that may explain why long-term memory and short-term memory respond differently to the aging process.)
When he arrived as chairman of anatomy in 1951, Dr. Flexner recalls that he set out to "modernize" the department through a newer approach to faculty appointments. His outlook included such forthright statements as, "I can admire the guy who is a great scientist, but at the same time, I'll admire him a hell of a lot more if he has respect for other people."
Within two years of his arrival he also founded what is now Mahoney Institute. The University's first "neurologic institute" had been established in 1937, but it was Dr. Flexner's founding 16 years later of the Institute for Neurological Sciences that secured the first training grant ever awarded by the National Institutes of Health. During the subsequent thirty years the Institute grew steadily under his initial directorship; then under the late Dr. Eliot Stellar; and still later under Dr. James M. Sprague and the present director, Dr. Robert Barchi. Endowed and named for alumnus David Mahoney in 1985, the Institute is now comprised of 128 faculty members distributed among 24 clinical and basic science departments throughout the University, with a network of starter grants, visiting professorships, lectures, seminars, a yearly publication, and an annual neurological retreat to draw a "neurosciences community" together. It is home to the graduate group of neurological sciences, which has 92 students, and to a newer clinical track which has 75.
Dr. Flexner is survived by his wife and by many colleagues and friends.
He joined the University as one of the first "members" of the Johnson Research Foundation in the early 1930s. He worked for Dr. D. W. Bronk as chauffeur, as purveyor of sandwiches for lunch, and to take care in a remarkably hospitable way of the many, many U.S. and Foreign Scientists that came to the Johnson Foundation. When finally, and for the last time, Dr. Bronk moved his group away from the University in 1948, Tom stayed on and served faithfully and well until my retirement in 1983.
Tom had the remarkable gift of making everybody feel at home in the Johnson Foundation regardless of whether he spoke their language or they spoke his. His pleasant and outgoing personality may have left a more enduring memory on those who were at the Johnson Foundation than its scientific accomplishments. I knew Tom well and I loved him for his cheery and invincible attitude of happiness. We missed him on his retirement and now he is gone.
-- Britton Chance, For. Mem. RS
Eldridge Reeves Johnson University
Professor of Emeritus of Biophyhsics,
Physical Chemistry and Radiologic Physics
April 2, 1996
Volume 42 Number 26
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