Victor and his identical twin Vincent L. McKusick, LL.B., who later became chief justice of the Maine Supreme Court, were born on October 21, 1921, two of five children. His father was a graduate of Bates College, a small liberal arts institution in Maine, where he was elected to Phi Beta Kappa. Before he decided to become a dairy farmer, Victor's father served as a high school principal at Chester, Vermont, for nine years. Victor's mother had been an elementary school teacher before his parents were married. Victor and his siblings were raised on a dairy farm in Parkman, Maine.
During the summer of 1937, Victor suffered a severe microaerophilic Streptococcus infection in his axilla (armpit). Resulting time spent in two hospitals, in Maine (one week) and at Massachusetts General Hospital, Boston, Massachusetts (ten weeks), finally saw a successful diagnosis and course of treatment, using sulfanilamide (which had only been introduced a year earlier). Prior to these events, McKusick had seriously planned to go into the ministry. Having no doctors in the family and only their local general practitioner as a role model, the events of 1937 represented McKusick's first substantial experience with the medical community. From what he observed during his illness, he concluded, "I decided I liked what doctors did. I decided I wanted to join them."
After high school, in order to avoid having to compete with each other for scholarships, the McKusick twins parted. For his undergraduate work, Vincent followed the family tradition of studying at Bates. Victor enrolled at Tufts University from the fall of 1940 to the summer of 1942, his sixth semester of undergraduate study. Although Tufts had a medical school associated with it, a secondary reason why he had chosen to study there, Victor's attention had been directed to Johns Hopkins by a 1939 Time magazine article on the "big four" of Johns Hopkins medicine: William H. Welch, whom the article was primarily about, William Osler, Howard Atwood Kelly, and William Stewart Halsted.
The whole aura of Hopkins was very exciting to him, and with World War II going on, the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine could not fill its classes. Hopkins, therefore, temporarily discontinued its requirement of a baccalaureate degree as a prerequisite for admission, which had been in place since the school's founding, in 1893. Victor applied and was accepted in his sixth semester at Tufts and began, in the fall of 1942, as one of the first of a very few who ever entered the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine in this manner. Furthermore, despite numerous honorary doctorate degrees, Victor never earned a baccalaureate degree. According to McKusick, “We were churchgoing, a very religious family. My family was, of course, very intellectual, and this encouraged an intellectual approach to medicine.”
After medical school, McKusick planned to return to Maine and practice medicine as a general practitioner (GP), but he was chosen for the prestigious William Osler Internship in Internal Medicine. In the next decades, McKusick went on to head the Chronic Disease Clinic and create and chair a new Division of Medical Genetics, which represented a new branch of clinical medicine (1957-1973). He subsequently served as one of the successors of Osler as the Physician-in-Chief of the Johns Hopkins Hospital and was the William Osler Professor of Medicine and Chairman of the Department of Medicine (1973-1985).
Since 1985 until his death, McKusick taught, conducted research, and practiced medicine in the Departments of Medicine and Medical Genetics, holding nemerous faculty appointments and remaining the entire time at Johns Hopkins. He held concurrent appointments as University Professor of Medical Genetics, McKusick-Nathans Institute of Genetic Medicine, Department of Medical Genetics, Johns Hopkins Hospital; Professor of Medicine, Department of Medicine, Johns Hopkins Hospital; Professor of Epidemiology, Johns Hopkins University School of Hygiene and Public Health; and Professor of Biology, Johns Hopkins University. He edited two journals: Genomics, which he cofounded in 1987 with Dr. Frank Ruddle, and Medicine, which was founded the year he was born.
In 1966, McKusick first published his catalogue of all known genes and genetic disorders, Mendelian Inheritance in Man (MIM). The 12th and final print edition was published in 1998. MIM has also been available full-text online and free of charge since 1987 as, Online Mendelian Inheritance in Man OMIM), a continually updated database linked with National Center for Biotechnology Information (NCBI), National Library of Medicine (NLM) for distribution and has been part of the Entrez database network system since 1995. At the time of his death on 22 July 2008, OMIM had 18,847 entries. McKusick was the founding president of the Human Genome Organization (HUGO) (1989). He founded (1960) and codirected the Annual Short Course in Medical and Experimental Mammalian Genetics, Jackson Laboratory, Bar Harbor, Maine, as well as the Annual Course in Medical Genetics, University of Bologna Residential Center, Bertinoro di Romagna, Italy (1987).
McKusick wrote widely throughout his career on the history of medicine, genetics, medical genetics, and Parkman, Maine. Many of his scientific works in medical genetics, cardiology, and internal medicine, specifically, Medical Genetic Studies of the Amish, Selected Papers Assembled with Commentary (1978); Probable Assignment of the Duffy Blood Group Locus to Chromosome 1 in Man (1968); and A Synopsis of Clinical Auscultation, Being a Treatise on Cardiovascular and Respiratory Sound, Introduced by a Historical Survey, Illustrated by Sound Spectrograms (Spectral Phonocardiograms), and Supplemented by a Comprehensive Bibliography (1956), have become historical documents in themselves. He wrote most widely, however, on the history of medical genetics, including many articles, addresses, and a book chapter. He had. as well, played a leading role in investigating whether Abraham Lincoln, 16th president of the United States, had Marfan syndrome. McKusick also was an active scholar on the life of Sir William Osler.
In a paper presented by M.I. Poling in 2005, McKusick was quoted: "I have always told my students, residents, and fellows, if you want to really get on top of some topic, you need to know how it got from where it was to how it is now. I was always strong on eponyms, too—like Marfan syndrome, Freeman-Sheldon syndrome, Down syndrome, Tay-Sachs disease, etc. On rounds, the resident or student would present a patient with some particular condition, and I would always ask, so who is so and so for whom the disease was named. This prompts thought and research into the disease or condition itself to find out who first described it and, therefore, for whom it was named."
McKusick was awarded the NAS Award for Scientific Reviewing from the National Academy of Sciences in 1982, and the Benjamin Franklin Medal for Distinguished Achievement in the Sciences of the American Philosophical Society in 1996. In 1997, he received the Albert Lasker Award for Achievement in Medical Science. In 2001, he received the National Medal of Science. Two years earlier, McKusick was honored by the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine with his name upon the McKusick-Nathans Institute of Genetic Medicine, along with Dr. Daniel Nathans.
In 1949, Victor married Anne Bishop McKusick, MD, Associate Professor of Medicine, Division of Rheumatology, Department of Medicine, Johns Hopkins Hospital (retired). The couple had two sons and a daughter. On April 23, 2008, McKusick became the sole recipient of the Japan Prize for Medical Genetics, which was awarded to him for his pioneering achievements in establishing the field of medical genetics.
On July 22, 2008, McKusick died of cancer at his home in Towson, MD, outside Baltimore, at the age of 86.
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