Saturday, March 24, 2007
Courtesy of Frank Gehry
Milton Wexler, Groundbreaker
on Huntingtons, Dies at 98
by Douglas Martin
Milton Wexler, a psychoanalyst who applied his talent for conducting
group therapy to brainstorming sessions for scientists working
on the hereditary disease that ravaged his wifes family,
died on March 16 at his home in Santa Monica, Calif. He was 98.
The cause was complications of pneumonia, his daughter Nancy
Dr. Wexler was a psychoanalyst to Hollywood stars, famous artists
and architects and other luminaries when his former wife contracted
Huntingtons disease, a rare, incurable genetic disorder.
It had killed her father and three brothers. Dr. Wexler learned
there was a 50-50 chance that Nancy and their other daughter,
Alice Wexler, would get the disease, which is always fatal.
He formed the Hereditary Disease Foundation to gather young
scientists from different disciplines and institutions for freewheeling
talks about Huntingtons as well as to sponsor research.
I became an activist because I was terribly selfish,
Dr. Wexler said in an interview with The Los Angeles Times in
1999. I was scared to death one of my daughters would get
His strategy was one he developed for group therapy among creative
people: no-holds-barred discussion toward a common purpose in
a nonthreatening climate.
His expertise was in the world of creativity, said
David E. Housman, the Ludwig professor of biology at the Massachusetts
Institute of Technology and a participant in the sessions.
The research that emerged changed everything in the world
of genetic disease, Dr. Housman said, adding that many influential
scientists had not expected so much progress for 100 years.
Researchers affiliated with the foundation in 1983 found the
marker, or approximate location, of the gene for Huntingtons
disease. A decade later, they identified the gene.
Milton Wexler was born on Aug. 24, 1908, in San Francisco, where
his father had gone to cash in on a post-earthquake real estate
boom. When that fizzled, the family returned to New York.
Milton graduated from Syracuse University, then earned a law
degree from New York University. Soon bored with law, he earned
a doctorate in psychology from Columbia. After Navy service, he
joined the Menninger Foundation in Topeka, Kan., where he specialized
in research and treatment involving schizophrenia.
In 1950, he moved to Los Angeles to practice psychoanalysis
to support his three brothers-in-law, who all had what was then
called Huntingtons chorea.
In 1962, he divorced the former Leonore Sabin, not knowing that
she also had Huntingtons. Their daughter Nancy said he had
become discouraged over her depression, which was actually a symptom
of the disease.
Six years later, a Los Angeles police officer stopped Leonore
for apparent inebriation; the disease made her wobble. She immediately
called her ex-husband, still a friend, for help. He devoted himself
to her care until her death 10 years later.
In the late 1960s, Dr. Wexler joined forces with Marjorie Guthrie,
wife of the songwriter Woody Guthrie, who had died of the disease,
to help others with Huntingtons. Dr. Wexler started his
own foundation in 1974 and began his free-association sessions.
He paid each researcher only $1,000 and expenses, but sweetened
the deal by inviting them to parties with movie stars. His Hollywood
connections included writing two screenplays with Blake Edwards,
The Man Who Loved Women and Thats Life!
Dr. Wexler is survived by his two daughters, Nancy, of Manhattan,
who is deeply involved in the foundations work, and Alice,
of Santa Monica, who wrote a book about the disease. Fearing that
they might carry and pass on their mothers defective gene,
both chose not to have children.
But they do not definitely know, because they declined to take
the test that research by their fathers foundation made
possible. There is still no cure, and he convinced them that there
was nothing to be gained by having the test.
If the gods want to drive you mad, first they tell you
your future, Dr. Wexler said.
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