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Vol. LXIV, No. 5
March 3, 2012

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Daughter Pays Tribute
Sickle Cell Pioneer Whitten’s Papers Come to NLM
Dr. Wanda Whitten-Shurney discusses the legacy of her father, Dr. Charles Whitten.
Dr. Wanda Whitten-Shurney discusses the legacy of her father, Dr. Charles Whitten.

How do you tell the story of an accomplished polymath—pediatric hematologist, co-founder of the Sickle Cell Disease Association of America (SCDAA), father—who advanced science, education and outreach for sickle cell disease? One way: through his papers.

“My first name is Wanda, but my last name is Dr. Charles Whitten’s daughter,” said Dr. Wanda Whitten-Shurney, pediatrician at the comprehensive sickle cell clinic at Children’s Hospital of Michigan and CEO and medical director of SCDAA’s Michigan chapter. “I stand firmly, standing on his shoulders.”

NLM director Dr. Donald Lindberg welcomed an audience that included Whitten family members and SCDAA President Sonja Banks to Lister Hill Auditorium on Feb. 2 to hear Whitten-Shurney’s tribute to her father, illustrated through his papers. “On this occasion, we are able to thank the Whitten family most sincerely for the gift of the papers,” Lindberg said. The gift was first announced at the 2010 NIH James B. Herrick Symposium: Sickle Cell Disease Care and Research.

Whitten-Shurney shared her struggle to condense her father’s life into a 45-minute talk. Whitten did so many things, for so many people, in so many different spheres.

The talk, “Introducing Charles Whitten: Scientist, Humanitarian, Family Man,” illustrated Whitten’s landmark work fighting SCD.

In sickle cell anemia, the body produces crescent or sickle-shaped red blood cells, resulting in anemia. The sickle cells also get stuck in blood vessels, blocking blood flow, increasing risk of infection and causing excruciating pain and organ damage.

People with SCD are born with two sickle cell genes, one from each parent. A person with sickle cell trait, or one sickle cell gene, doesn’t have the disease but can pass it on. Most states test newborns as part of their screening programs. Whitten-Shurney said her father was among the first to insist on and to develop newborn screening for SCD, which is now performed in every state.

Dr. Bechara Kachar (l) of NIDCD and Dr. Dylan Burnette, an NIGMS fellow currently with NICHD, have developed a new microscope technique.

Whitten-Shurney (l) poses with (from l) NLM director Dr. Donald Lindberg, widow Mrs. Eloise Culmer Whitten and Dr. Lisa Whitten.

Photos: Michael Spencer

Education was paramount to Whitten. Whitten-Shurney described one innovative example: the Whitten dice. “Many young black men find out they have sickle cell trait only after they have a baby with SCD,” she said. One in 12 African Americans carries the trait. Whitten developed color-coded dice to educate couples about genetic risks. This was one of many methods he used to promote SCD awareness.

Whitten also made a lasting contribution to medical education: Wayne State University’s post-baccalaureate enrichment program. “This program led to more African Americans graduating from a medical school [Wayne State] than any other school besides Howard and Meharry,” Whitten-Shurney said.

The Whitten papers include letters from former students and photographs of his philanthropic outreach with the SCDAA, a network that has included Muhammad Ali, Diahann Carroll, Ruby Dee and Ossie Davis and Archbishop Desmond Tutu. The papers also tell the story of Clinique Whitten, an SCD clinic in Haiti.

Whitten-Shurney devoted the final moments of the talk to portraying her dad as a family man. Despite all the time he spent bettering the world, Whitten was always there for his family. Among his favorite pastimes was baking chocolate cake. At the end of the lecture, Whitten-Shurney handed out copies of a chocolate cake recipe, a fitting tribute for the occasion. NIHRecord Icon

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