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NIH Record - 75th Anniversary - National Institutes of Health

Lessons from His First 63 Years in Research: NIA Honors Schlessinger

Dr. David Schlessinger in his lab

NIA’s Dr. David Schlessinger in his lab.

Photo: Chip Rose

The scientific community recently honored the career of Dr. David Schlessinger, an investigator renowned for his achievements in the field of genetics, but even more so as a beloved mentor and colleague.

Schlessinger, senior investigator (now emeritus) in NIA’s Laboratory of Genetics and Genomics and NIH distinguished investigator, will start a new chapter in his journey following a scientific symposium in his honor on May 3 at the Biomedical Research Center on the Bayview campus in Baltimore. The celebration included Schlessinger’s family and drew colleagues and mentees past and present from NIA, Washington University in St. Louis and other institutions from across the globe.

Schlessinger will be remembered as an expert in the mapping of the X chromosome and the study of its related rare diseases, as well as a noted figure in the history of the human genome effort. Even more, tribute after tribute at the symposium painted a portrait of a respected, beloved and humble mentor and colleague.

Several speakers remarked on Schlessinger’s strong support for his mentees, noting his high expectations for everyone, availability to his trainees and the family atmosphere he fostered in his labs. Many speakers also highlighted how he promoted a proper work/fun balance by example, taking his team for the occasional baseball outing (his beloved St. Louis Cardinals or his adopted Baltimore Orioles), incorporating his love for the outdoors by leading nature walks, visiting museums or hosting large potluck meals (with his expert wine selection.)

Dr. David Schlessinger with Dr. Luigi Ferrucci

Dr. David Schlessinger with Dr. Luigi Ferrucci, NIA scientific director.

Photo: Thomas Wynn

He remains an avid traveler, taking in interesting natural sights in the U.S. and across the world with family and colleagues. His travels have often taken them to Italy, home of the SardiNIA project, a large study of aging-related traits in a genetically homogenous population that he has helped lead since 2001.

Schlessinger began his career in fall 1953 at the University of Chicago, where he received his B.S. in chemistry. “The Watson/Crick paper was already in the syllabus for the science courses,” he said. “But it didn’t have its full impact immediately. At the time the first biochemistry textbooks were being written, a typical statement about DNA would be, ‘A boring polymer of repeated units, four repeated units.’ So, it took some time for the model to register fully.”

While earning his Ph.D. in biochemistry at Harvard University under the supervision of Dr. James Watson, he spent time at the California Institute of Technology, where along the way he met his wife, Alice. They have been married since 1960 and have 2 daughters and 6 grandchildren. Alice is beloved among his mentees for making many international students feel welcome in the U.S. while helping them to improve their conversational English.

Schlessinger later studied at the Pasteur Institut in Paris; he and Alice honeymooned during the ship journey there. “Pasteur was an extraordinary place,” he said. “It was a lineup of impressive people, all very original, very interesting. I still think that Paris is the best place in the world to be if you’re young. And it’s not so bad if you’re old!”

Schlessinger went on to make his mark in the field of genetics by leading a Washington University team in the first-ever high-resolution map of the human X chromosome, a feat noted  as a “gift to researchers studying X-linked diseases” in the New York Times in 1997. He directed the Center for Genetics in Medicine at Washington University in St. Louis for a decade, leading landmark studies on how the X chromosome related to diseases of aging and human development. He then came to NIA in 1998 as chief of its new Laboratory of Genetics, where he continued to research, publish and mentor.

Dr. David Schlessinger with past mentees

Dr. David Schlessinger (5th from left) was celebrated by past mentees Carlos Galaviz, Jose Elias Garcia-Ortiz, Corrado Gurgo, James Chou, Steve Phillips, Weidong Wang, Minoru Ko, Francesco Cucca, Reid Huber and Ramaiah Nagaraja.

Photo: Thomas Wynn

At the recent symposium, Dr. Luigi Ferrucci, NIA scientific director, recalled how Schlessinger interviewed him for his first position at NIA. “I was nervous because I came from Italy and they were asking very complicated science questions,” said Ferrucci. “But David and I ended up talking about wine and Tuscany, and so I felt instantly at home. He will always be known for his sophisticated science, not just about genetics and aging, but also his way of enjoying aging and life through a variety of experiences and recipes.”

For his part, Schlessinger was delighted to reconnect with so many old friends but a bit embarrassed by all the attention. “It was difficult to have so many people that I value arriving to participate and then leaving after such a short time,” he said. “But I enjoyed every minute and every interaction and the many great memories that were recalled.”

He will retain emeritus status at NIA, and while he has not yet mapped out his full plans for retirement, Schlessinger said they will “certainly include copy-editing manuscripts, which is second nature for me.” He also plans to start a memoir of the early days of molecular biology, “written as someone who saw it develop.” Ever a curious mind, he notes that he also has hundreds of books set aside to read now that I “have the time.”

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