Saturday, April 9, 2011

A life well lived


15 years ago, we were on the threshold of  treating ischemic stroke with rapid application of drugs that dissolve the clot blocking blood flow to the brain.  The problem is that the condition must be diagnosed quickly (the therapy is only effective in the first hour or so) and accurately (20% of all strokes involve bleeding rather than interruption of blood flow).   We began to look for ways that paramedics could take a simple measurement to characterize brain attacks, which brought us to Britton Chance.

Dr. Chance was an eminent scientist and inventor who was researching new optical methods for characterizing cerebral blood flow.  He used a unique tri-color infrared light to penetrate the skull and characterize the perfusion of brain tissue.  We provided some research money to see if we could develop this into a practical product, moving the innovation from the lab to the streets.

Chance 2Along the way, I came to know and admire Dr. Chance.  He had won a gold medal in the Olympics, had worked in the Rad Lab at MIT during WWII, and was a pioneer in optical and NMR measurements.   Almost 90, he still came to work every day at U Penn, continuing to innovate and inspire his students.  He always had time to discuss a theoretical point, to share enthusiasm for a device, or to share a story.  He would send us prototypes that were elegant and functional: big, discrete components bolted into metal frames in ways that car engines used to look in the 60’s.  He believed that his instruments could tell us more than just how the brain’s plumbing was working – he used to explain how he could see the foundations of mathematical and verbal thinking if you looked at his data correctly..

Britton passed away last November. I found out about it after attending a Systems Biology lecture where the professor chance 3discussed his pioneering work measuring enzyme-substrate complexes.  They were a theoretical convenience in biology for 30 years, their existence presumed but unknown before he found a way to visualize them directly.  It prompted me to look him up to see how he was doing – I found a long list of recent obituaries.

We always used to say how we hoped we’d grow  up to be Britton, sailing, working,thinking, and enjoying life well past 90.  Like E. Roy John, another mentor who passed away a couple of years ago, he lived life fully and gave back generously.  I’m always glad that I was able to spend time learning from them; I always feel my world has lost a part of it’s foundation when they are gone.

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