• In a photo from 2002, Professor Vernon Ingram holds up cell cultures that he and senior technical associate Barbara Blanchard worked with during their research on the beta-amyloid plaques that attack the brains of Alzheimer's patients.

    Photo / Donna Coveney

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'Father of molecular medicine,' Vernon Ingram dies at 82

Vernon Ingram, an MIT biology professor known as the "father of molecular medicine," died Aug. 17 from injuries suffered during a fall. He was 82.

A memorial service has been scheduled for Sunday, Sept. 10th at 2 p.m. in Wong Auditorium (E51). A reception will follow at Ashdown House.

Ingram was best known for his discovery, during the 1950s, that a single amino acid substitution is responsible for the molecular abnormality that leads to sickle cell anemia.

The find was "one of the absolutely seminal discoveries in the history of molecular biology," said Graham Walker, MIT professor of biology.

Walker, who was Ingram's friend and colleague for 30 years, said that Ingram was "one of the greatest men I have met in my life. An extraordinary scientist, an extraordinary intellect, and an absolutely wonderful human being."

In recent years, Ingram focused his research on neuroscience, especially Alzheimer's disease. Though in his 80s, he still ran a small laboratory at MIT and was constantly pursuing new research, Walker said.

"He was a dyed-in-the-wool, inveterate experimentalist," Walker said. "He was going at full speed right up until the end."

Ingram and his wife, Elizabeth, served as housemasters at Ashdown House from 1985 until a few years ago.

"They were just extraordinarily dedicated to their students," Walker said.

Ingram was also a dedicated teacher and had served as director of the Experimental Studies Group (ESG).

Holly Sweet, current director of ESG, described Ingram as an "inspirational teacher, and a compassionate and spirited man who promoted the professional growth of his staff. As far as his legacy to ESG is concerned, he was the guiding force behind our ever-growing seminar series. He truly put the 'experimental' into the Experimental Study Group. We will miss him a great deal."

Ingram was born in Breslau, Germany, in 1924. He studied at Birkbeck College at the University of London, earning his B.Sc. in chemistry in 1945 and his Ph.D. in organic chemistry in 1949. He then spent two years in the United States preparing and crystallizing proteins at the Rockefeller Institute and studying peptide chemistry at Yale.

In 1952, Ingram returned to England, where he studied protein chemistry in the Cavendish Laboratory of Cambridge University. He focused on the genetics of hemoglobin, the molecule that carries oxygen in the blood. Those studies led to his discovery that the misshapen hemoglobin molecules that characterize sickle cell anemia are caused by a single mutation.

Ingram joined the MIT faculty in 1958 and was one of a distinguished group of professors who started a world-renowned center for the study of molecular and cell biology. He originally planned to stay at MIT for only one year, but "I liked it so much that I stayed," he told the National Academy of Sciences in 2002, the year he was elected to that society.

In 1961, Birkbeck College awarded him the D.Sc. degree.

He enjoyed art, music and photography, and was very involved with the Rockport Chamber Music Festival (RCMF).

RCMF Artistic Director David Deveau, who is also a pianist and a senior lecturer in music at MIT, worked closely with Ingram for the past decade.

"Vernon served with great distinction on the board of directors of the RCMF and brought a wonderful energy and commitment to our enterprise. He and Beth attended most of the festival concerts, enjoyed hosting musicians, talking music and throwing wonderful parties. Vernon brought his natural scientific curiosity to everything he undertook, and music was no exception. We often had substantive conversations about the merits of a given performance or composition," Deveau said.

Ingram is survived by his wife; a son, Peter; and a daughter, Jennifer.

Condolence cards may be sent to MIT Department of Biology, Attn: Mary Markel Murphy, Bldg. 68-132, 77 Massachusetts Ave., Cambridge, MA 02139-4307.

A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on September 13, 2006 (download PDF).

Topics: Obituaries


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