Friday, Dec. 6, 2002
"When I woke up on July 1, I felt 20 years younger, so I shaved off
my beard," says Walter Nance, M.D., Ph.D., reminiscing recently about
the first morning this summer in almost 27 years that he began his day
as someone other than the chairman of VCU's Department of Human Genetics.
"Since then, I have enjoyed the luxury of writing or laboring over manuscripts
for 4-6 hours at a time in my office. I can't remember when in my career
that I've had that luxury!"
Dr. Nance retired on June 30 as chair of human genetics, a role he assumed
on Sept. 29, 1975, when he arrived in Richmond from Indianapolis. He had
been professor of medical genetics and medicine at Indiana University
from 1969-1975 and, before that, assistant professor of medicine and head
of the Division Genetics at Vanderbilt University.
On July 1, Peter O'Connell, Ph.D., took the reins as chair. (See O'Connell
"I've enjoyed the sandbox that VCU gave me to play in," says Nance,
who remains a professor of human genetics and continues his internationally
renowned research on hereditary deafness. "It's been a great deal of fun,
trying to create a department here. We've achieved some degree of success."
In fact, Human Genetics has come a long way at VCU. With the founding
of the Department of Biology and Genetics in the School of Pharmacy in
1938 under Dr. Roscoe D. Hughes, what was then known as the Medical College
of Virginia became one of the first health care campuses in the country
to have a department with "genetics" in its title. In 1969, when VCU was
formed, the department was transferred into the new School of Basic Health
Sciences as a program in human genetics. It regained full departmental
status in 1975, simultaneous with Nance's arrival as chair, and became
one of a small handful of autonomous departments of human genetics in
the country and the only one of its type in the Southeast at the time.
In a keepsake book prepared for Nance's retirement party in June by
his daughter, Martha Nance, a neurogeneticist in Minneapolis who specializes
in treatment of patients with Huntington's Disease, colleagues and former
students talked about Nance's contributions at VCU:
* Dr. Joann N. Bodurtha, associate professor of human genetics who has
managed the department's clinical services since the mid 1980s, described
Nance as "the consummate one-on-one teacher."
* Cynthia Morton, Ph.D., who completed the doctoral program in 1982,
describes her experience as that of "a family that celebrated wins and
losses together and still does so today, although we are widely geographically
dispersed. Dr. Nance ruled this family with his brilliance, his ever-inquisitive
mind and with his total love of science, medicine and human genetics."
* Robin Winter, Ph.D., who was a postdoctoral fellow from 1976-1978
and now is editor of the London Dysmorphology Database, recalls "the freedom
to find out what my interests in genetics might be in a very stimulating
and eclectic environment."
* Dr. Barry Wolf, a biochemical geneticist and pediatrician and an early
faculty-member recruit, says Nance served as the "father of the department,"
who "nurtured us, stayed up nights with us, snored with us, praised us,
scolded us (gently) and drove with us to small towns in western Virginia."
* Former student Fred Bieber, Ph.D., now a renowned teratologist and
forensic geneticist at Harvard Medical School, wrote: "Walter Nance is
a remarkably talented academic physician - a leader in the development
of the now-mature field of medical genetics. His contributions to the
study of inherited variation have been legion. ... Quiet, calm, brilliant,
determined, enthusiastic, modest - these terms barely describe Walter
Nance, thesis advisor, mentor and friend I so greatly respect and admire."
Nance earned a B.S. in mathematics from the University of the South
in Sewanee, TN, in 1954 and an M.D. from Harvard Medical School in 1958.
He planned to work as a general medical practitioner after completing
his residency at Vanderbilt, but an externship with a family friend and
physician led him down a different path when he became fascinated with
the variations in placenta types among several twin births he witnessed.
The observations led to his first manuscript, "Twins: An introduction
to gemellology," published in 1959.
After his residency, he moved to the University of Wisconsin in Madison
to study the genetics of haptoglobin, which is a protein that is secreted
into the blood by the liver. In the succeeding years, he wrote a series
of papers on the genetics of blood proteins, work that culminated in the
completion and successful defense of his Ph.D. thesis in 1968. During
the past 30 years, he has published 200 works.
By the late 1990s, Nance began to concentrate his research on the genetic
causes of deafness. He travels regularly to Mongolia, where he collaborates
with geneticists in Ulan Bataar to study the genetic epidemiology of deafness