Vernon M. Ingram
The following is excerpted from a Memorial Resolution for Vernon Martin Ingram presented at the September 20, 2006 meeting of the MIT faculty.
Vernon Martin Ingram, John and Dorothy Wilson Professor of Biochemistry, one of the founding fathers of Molecular Medicine, passed away on August 17, 2006 at the age of 82. Vernon had been a member of the MIT faculty for 48 years.
Vernon was born on May 19, 1924 in Breslau, Germany. When Vernon was 14, he and his family moved to London. Interested in science since an early age, Vernon studied chemistry at Birkbeck College, London University where he received a B.Sc. in 1945 and a Ph.D. in organic chemistry in 1949.
After two years of postdoctoral research in the USA, first at Rockefeller University and then at Yale University, Vernon returned to England in 1952 to work with Max Perutz at the Cavendish Laboratory in Cambridge. It was there, in a bicycle shed converted to a laboratory, that Vernon made the crucial discovery that the blood disease sickle cell anemia was caused by a single amino acid change in hemoglobin. This discovery is heralded to be among the seminal discoveries in molecular biology.
Vernon came to MIT in 1958. He mentions that he came on a one-year sabbatical. It is our good fortune that he ended up staying at MIT for the rest of his life.
Vernon’s research efforts were always timely and in important areas. At MIT, Vernon continued his work on hemoglobin and hemoglobin-related diseases, but he was also among the earliest to begin work on transfer RNAs at a time when transfer RNAs were at the center of the newly-developing field of molecular biology. More recently, Vernon switched to neurobiology, focusing on Huntington’s disease and Alzheimer’s disease. Vernon took great satisfaction in working in the laboratory himself in spite of his advancing age, and was working in the laboratory until the very end.
Vernon’s scientific contributions and accomplishments have been widely acknowledged through his election to The American Academy of Arts and Sciences, The Royal Society, London and The National Academy of Sciences, USA.
Vernon was a true scholar and an educator in every sense of the terms. He was totally committed to MIT’s educational mission and he cared deeply about the education and well being of the students. In addition to research and participation in the teaching programs of the Biology Department, Vernon served as Director of ESG, the Experimental Study Group, from 1989-1999, as a member of the Committee on Academic Performance from 1996-1999 and 2005 and, along with his wife, Beth, as Housemasters at Ashdown House from 1985-2001. He also taught a Freshman Advising Seminar every year for the past nine years. In all these capacities, Vernon left a lasting impression on whomever he came in contact.
Holly Sweet of ESG says this of Vernon: “During his time as director of ESG, Vernon was active in making ESG a place of educational innovation for students and staff. He developed a biology wet lab, a biology hypertext book, one of the first faculty members to conceive of using the internet for teaching, and supported and extended the ESG undergraduate seminar series. He also actively promoted the professional growth of ESG staff members and helped create the ESG teaching seminar, where students and staff trade ideas about education and teaching experiences in an informal and collaborative setting.”
Vernon was proud of ESG. He called it an eclectic program, that attracted motivated students and staff, but Vernon also transformed ESG into an open society where ideas and experiences were shared by everyone.
A former freshman advisee of Vernon from the ESG had this to say “I remember reading his name in the text book and thinking, oh my god! . . . because there was nothing in the way Vernon talked or interacted or behaved that ever gave you the impression that he was somebody ‘big’. And that perhaps to me, was the greatest thing about him . . . the greatest lesson in humility and human-ness – and something I will always remember him for.”
As Housemasters at Ashdown House, Vernon and Beth were beloved by generations of graduate students. They advocated tirelessly for Ashdown residents, encouraged and supported students at times of personal and academic difficulties, and celebrated accomplishments with students. In appreciation of Vernon and Beth’s long tenure at Ashdown House and their constant considerations of the well being of the students, a former student petitioned successfully to have an asteroid named after them. This asteroid, discovered in 1981, is now officially (6285) Ingram.
Vernon also contributed in a major way to the MIT UROP. As busy as he was with all of his commitments, Vernon loved working in the laboratory. This meant that students who went to work in his laboratory received training in research from Vernon himself. Consequently, his laboratory was one of the most popular ones for students wanting to do biology research under the UROP. He was a UROP supervisor at least since 1975 and was one until the time of his death.
Vernon also provided an example of how to live a well-rounded life. He was a gifted pianist, grew orchids at Ashdown, and was a highly talented photographer, who donated several of his works to Ashdown House. He shared his musical gifts with students during Ashdown House concerts. In recognition of their many contributions, a petition has been submitted to the MIT Corporation for the naming of a room in Ashdown House for Beth and Vernon Ingram.
Vernon was a true Renaissance man, a person who could be at home in a laboratory or concert hall. He had the amazing ability to be a well-known scientist, a top notch educator and artist, and a warm and a compassionate person.
His get-togethers at Ashdown House were legendary – filled with food, music, and art. He gave a tremendous amount to the various communities with which he was involved, including ESG, Ashdown House, and Rockport, where he spent his summers.
For a scientist who made one of the seminal discoveries at an early age, Vernon was a most humble and modest person. He acknowledged readily the contributions of others in his work and ascribed his most important discovery to serendipity and “dumb” luck. In a Perspective published in 2004, he ended the article as follows: [This writer feels that without a lot of “dumb” luck, the sickle-cell mutation in hemoglobin would not have been pinned down, at least not at that time by us. No doubt it would have been figured out by somebody sometime. The story leaves one with a warm feeling toward “luck”!]
Vernon leaves his wife Beth, his son Peter, daughter Jennifer, their mother Margaret, Vernon’s first wife, and four grandchildren.