Marjorie Lees (1923–2012)



Marjorie Lees.

Marjorie Berman Lees, Professor (Emeritus) of Biological Chemistry and Neurology at Harvard Medical School, died 18 January, 2012 after a long illness. Marjorie was a truly unique scientist, who inspired numerous people throughout her life. She was born in New York in 1923 and graduated from Hunter College. She obtained a Master's degree at the University of Chicago and then moved with her husband, Dr Sidney Lees, to Boston, where she started working with Dr Jordi Folch-Pi, and decided to obtain a PhD She was supported at Radcliffe College with one of the first NIH-sponsored pre doctoral fellowships. Her work with Dr Folch-Pi resulted in the discovery of a novel chloroform–methanol soluble protein in total lipid extracts of the brain, that is, the myelin proteolipid protein (PLP, Folch and Lees 1951). She continued studying myelin lipids and the PLP for her entire career, having developed major techniques for their analysis (Folch et al. 1951, 1957). She spent a number of years at Dartmouth Medical School, and then returned to Harvard Medical School, first to the Biological Laboratories at McLean Hospital and later at the Eunice Kennedy Shriver Center for Mental Retardation from 1976 until retirement.

Marjorie was a remarkable role model for many people. As noted numerous times at her memorial service, Marjorie was determined. She accomplished whatever she set out to do. She had long-term grant support from the NIH throughout her career. She was very active in the American Society for Neurochemistry, serving on its Council, as Treasurer from 1975 to 1981 and as President from 1983 to 1985. She was Editor-in-Chief of the Journal of Neurochemistry from 1986 to 1989. She published numerous reviews and book chapters, and more than 100 original articles. Twenty-three of her papers were in the Journal of Neurochemistry, starting in 1959 (Lees et al. 1959), and her last Journal of Neurochemistry paper was in 1991 (Yamamura et al. 1991).

One of the most difficult hydrophobic proteins, Marjorie sequenced PLP by brute force using Edman degradation at a time when there was no DNA cloning and sequencing. When the PLP gene was subsequently isolated and sequenced, her original amino acid sequence was beautifully accurate, differing only in some species-specific residues. She then moved on to investigate the role of PLP in experimental autoimmune encephalomyelitis. She was among the early investigators in the 1950s who had suggested that PLP could be an encephalitogenic protein (Waksman et al. 1954), but those observations were overwhelmed for several decades by the extensive data on the encephalitogenic potential of the myelin basic protein. Through that time, all mention of the possibility that PLP might play a role was dismissed as likely contamination of the PLP preparation with myelin basic protein. However, Marjorie was determined, and in the 1980, she demonstrated unequivocally that PLP can also be an auto antigen and a potent promoter of encephalomyelitis (Cambi et al. 1983; Sobel et al. 1986; Tuohy et al. 1988a,b). Further studies showed that multiple sclerosis patients have antibodies against PLP, as well as numerous other myelin antigens.

For those who worked with her, and for many others, Marjorie was an amazing mentor. She truly cared about her people and about her science. She made major efforts to support her trainees and numerous other junior investigators as they built their careers. She provided insight into research projects and, well into her retirement, wanted to know where the research was going.

No mention of Marjorie's life is complete without mention of her family. Marjorie was devoted to her three sons, David, Andy, and Elliot, and always felt the loss of her young daughter Constance. She adored her wonderful grandchildren. She and Sid were married for over 60 years. They had a remarkable life together, focused both on their science and their family. A lasting memory for all of us who knew them will be their joy at discussing their science and their family.

Marjorie Lees was a determined and remarkable force of nature, who never worried about whether she could succeed. She just did it. She is truly missed.