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Milton Wexler: 1908-2007

A visionary who led a genetic revolution

March 22, 2007|Elaine Woo | Times Staff Writer

When Milton Wexler's ex-wife lurched across a downtown Los Angeles street one day almost 40 years ago, a police officer called out to her, "Aren't you ashamed of drinking so early in the morning?"

But Leonore Wexler was not drunk.

She was showing the signs of Huntington's disease, the rare, incurable genetic disorder that had slowly killed her father and three brothers and several months earlier had claimed the life of folk singer Woody Guthrie. She had believed the disease only afflicted men, but that afternoon a neurologist's examination confirmed that she had been wrong. Even worse, she knew that her two grown daughters with Milton -- Alice and Nancy -- had a 50-50 chance of facing the same fate.

The devastating news sent Milton Wexler -- a lay psychoanalyst popular with actors and artists, including a then-budding architect named Frank Gehry -- on a journey to the edge of a scientific frontier. He would emerge a hero.

Wexler, 98, who died of respiratory failure Friday at his Santa Monica home, ignored the scientific wisdom of the time and poured his energy into unlocking the mysteries of one of the most enigmatic and crippling of diseases, often described as a time bomb because the mental and physical havoc it wreaks typically does not surface until midlife.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Friday March 23, 2007 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 53 words Type of Material: Correction
Milton Wexler obituary: In some editions of Thursday's Section A, headlines accompanying Milton Wexler's obituary stated that he died in 2000. He died in 2007. Also, a subhead stated that his wife died of Huntington's disease. As the story reported, Leonore Wexler was his ex-wife when she first showed signs of the disease.

In the early 1970s, after starting what is now the Hereditary Disease Foundation, he began to recruit bright young scientists willing to gamble on a longshot to workshops aimed at finding a cure. The freewheeling workshops -- structured like the group therapy sessions Wexler ran in his Westside practice -- stressed brainstorming and were unlike anything the scientists had ever experienced.

In 1983, after a decade of struggle in laboratories around the country, the scientists nurtured by Wexler -- and later also by Nancy, a clinical psychologist -- achieved the breakthrough few people believed possible: They found the genetic marker for Huntington's. In 1993, they located the gene itself.

Wife dies of the disease

These milestones in the genetics revolution did not help Leonore Wexler, who died of Huntington's on Mother's Day in 1978 -- 10 years after her diagnosis. But they would have a profound impact on others.

Discovering the gene not only represented an enormous step toward finding a cure for Huntington's, but it demonstrated the feasibility of mapping the entire array of 30,000 human genes.

Wexler "proved it could be done," said Dr. Francis Collins, who was a junior professor at the University of Wisconsin when he joined Wexler's workshops in the mid-1980s. Collins helped develop the methods for identifying the genes responsible not only for Huntington's disease but for cystic fibrosis before leading the successful effort to complete the genome blueprint in 2003.

"The search for the Huntington's gene became the paradigm for all such gene hunts.... That all came out of that wonderful intellectual ferment that Milton and Nancy created," said Collins, now director of the government-supported National Human Genome Research Institute in Bethesda, Md.

Dr. Anne B. Young, a Harvard Medical School professor and chief of neurology at Massachusetts General Hospital, said Wexler was "a visionary.... He was the guru and the glue," who held together a project that many eminent scientists had deemed foolish.

"Today we have the gene. We have an inkling of what the gene does. It wouldn't have happened without Milton," Young said. "He was a catalyst for all of that."

Born in San Francisco but reared in New York City, Wexler entered Syracuse University at 16 and earned a law degree from New York University. But he hated practicing law and abandoned it in 1937 to get a doctorate in psychology at Columbia University. He also studied under Theodor Reik, a Sigmund Freud disciple who helped legitimize the practice of psychoanalysis by non-physicians in the United States.

Wexler followed Reik's path and became one of the country's first lay psychoanalysts. After serving in the Navy during World War II, he joined the staff of the Menninger Foundation, a renowned psychiatric research and treatment center in Topeka, Kan., where his success treating schizophrenics gained attention. He gave his patients round-the-clock care, even taking a small group of them on vacation with his family so their treatment would not be interrupted.

"He was an organizing force in their life. A lot of people got better," Nancy Wexler said.

In 1951, he left Menninger and moved to Los Angeles to begin a more lucrative private practice that would enable him to help support his wife's brothers, who had been diagnosed with Huntington's the year before. He found success treating clients who were well-known in Hollywood. He even shared a screenplay credit with director Blake Edwards, the husband of actress Julie Andrews, for the movie "The Man Who Loved Women."

Wexler also accepted many struggling artists into analysis and by the early 1960s treated them free in groups.

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