What I learned at my 50th reunion

A variety of things, one of which should interest organic chemists, one of which should interest prospective academics and one of which should really interest drug chemists. It’s hard to believe that 50 years have passed.  

#1.  All Woodward graduate students who smoked, smoked Benson and Hedges (the master’s brand).  When I was there (’60 – ’62), many of us did, as the Surgeon General’s report  on the dangers of smoking didn’t come out until the summer of ’62.  I’d always assumed that Woodward had died (at age 62) of lung cancer (which is what the report was mostly about about).  I was shocked to hear a fellow college chemistry alum say at reunions that he drank himself to death.  Is there any truth to this?  Wikipedia doesn’t think so. 

Wikipedia says he died of a heart attack in his sleep.   Now that more is known about how and why smoking is bad  for you, a heart attack makes a good deal of sense. Chemists know that carbon monoxide binds the iron in hemoglobin more avidly than oxygen.  Smokers have carboxyhemoglobin levels of 5 – 6% vs. the rural nonsmoker who has levels of 1%.  If hemoglobin is carrying carbon monoxide it can’t carry oxygen.

 Why 1% in the nonsmoker?  Carbon monoxide is formed naturally as a breakdown product of hemoglobin, and the brain many actually use it as a neurotransmitter (it certainly uses nitric oxide this way).  

Hemoglobin is normally confined inside blood vessels (except when red blood cells die and their corpses are disposed of).  All hell breaks loose when it gets outside the circulation.   This means that blood vessels get the highest dose of monoxide (which also binds to the iron in members of the respiratory complex in mitochondria lousing up energy production).  This is a long way of saying that the major increase in mortality due to smoking is NOT from lung cancer (which is certainly increased), but from vascular disease (translation — heart attack and stroke) which is far more common than lung cancer.

#2.  The chemistry department had a reception for former chemistry majors.  It was really quite nice and the chair was there.  He (and one of the deans) were overjoyed that a very good chemist had just succumbed to their blandishments and was about to join the department. I don’t think full profs read or write chemistry blogs very much, but people applying for academic positions sure do.  Reading their blogs, I tend to think of people applying to departments hoping they’ll be taken.  You don’t think of departments themselves as being in the hunt (but clearly they are).

It was also very pleasant to meet a husband and wife from the 25th reunion class who had met each other as freshman, and were now teaching chemistry together.  Are there lots of chemical couples out there?  From my era, I know of two others (one of them is Don and Judy Voet of textbook fame) and also one from an earlier era (Louis and Mary Fieser, also authors of a famous textbook).  

#3. The saddest thing was to talk to an old college friend (same frat, fellow premed) who has early Alzheimer’s disease.  For future docs — you can find out how well someone of my vintage is thinking just by asking them to name their grandchildren.  You don’t have to do a formal mental status (and precipitate a crisis by rubbing their nose in how poorly they’re thinking).  He couldn’t.  He was an excellent physician who I’d seen off and on through the years.  Of course I found it terribly sad and very threatening (he was as smart or smarter than I am, and he’s the same age).  His excellent wife has stayed right with him through all of this. Fortunately, his personality has remained largely intact. 

Now here’s what is interesting about him.  According to a friend who saw him last year (and his wife) he is much better now than he was last year. Why?   A drug called Dimebon has turned him around.  Derek Lowe had a post on the failure of Dimebon in a double blind placebo study (In the Pipeline 3 Mar ’10). As a neurologist, I’ve certainly seen family members see improvement where none existed, but only for brief periods of time, and never for over a year (particularly in Alzheimer’s disease).  In addition I’ve never seen anyone with Alzheimer’s improve over a year’s time (and I’ve probably seen over 1,000 people with it).  However, Alzheimer patients do have good and bad days, just like all of us.   They don’t have good and bad years.  Each year is worse.

So what’s going on?  Is it possible the the early initial excitement over Dimebon was because of a few people like my friend who really responded?  Is it it possible that the diagnosis of Alzheimer’s is incorrect and that he has something else — I didn’t make the diagnosis, but presumably an MD would have the diagnosis competently made.  I do plan to raise this possibility with his wife.  In the meantime his wife is frantic, because the negative clinical trial means the drug won’t be available anymore.  She’s working with a lawyer to get the drug continued, or something like that.  But what if the company just stops making it (which is likely)?

#4.  There was an incredibly smart guy in our class, who could literally look at a page, understand what was on it, and effortlessly memorize it.  His roommate had no idea what was going on, but was soon called into the dean’s office because his grades were terrible.  He told the dean that he didn’t see what the problem was, as he studied as much as his roommate (about 1 hour/night).  He was told that his roommate was one of the smartest people the college had ever admitted, and to study more (which he did).  The roommate had it all.  Someone chanced upon him in a bar in NYC and asked him to model.  So he’d go into NY weekends to model, make money and party.   The rest of us had to hew wood and draw water (see the Irish Penal Laws).

#5.  The reunion and other matters have taken up quite a bit of time.  I’ve received several excellent comments on various posts, which I plan to respond to in the near future, now that time permits.  

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  • Wavefunction  On June 1, 2010 at 8:13 am

    Nice post. As someone who wrote most of the Wikipedia article on Woodward, I am pretty sure he drank himself to death. I gathered the information from a variety of sources (for instance, Jack Roberts’s memoirs, the Woodward book by Benfey and Morris, which is a must have by the way) but can check again.

  • Wavefunction  On June 1, 2010 at 8:16 am

    Sorry to hear about your friend. I am reading a book about Fatal Familial Insomnia, a prion disease which is even more horrific than AD. Review coming soon.

  • James  On June 2, 2010 at 2:43 pm

    The archives at Harvard have all of Woodward’s papers, letters, family documents, lab notebooks, videos, etc. Check it out –

  • luysii  On June 13, 2010 at 8:46 pm

    Thanks for the comments. Sorry to take so long to get back to you. I never got close enough to Woodward to smell alcohol on his breath (but this was almost two decades before his death. There weren’t even rumors about his drinking back then.

    I’ve never seen a case of familial fatal insomnia, but I did see a few cases of Jakob Creutzfeldt disease — horrible enough. Incidently Prusiner (or prion fame) was in my medical fraternity at Penn in the class behind, but I don’t remember anything about him.

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