The Blog

Richard L. Masland, 1910-2003

Remembering the life of an eminent neurologist and a faithful man.

11:00 PM, Jan 7, 2004 • By CLAUDIA WINKLER
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TO DIE PEACEFULLY at home at 93, attended by a cherished wife, and four children, and some of seven grandchildren--full of years, as the Bible has it, and loved and esteemed on every side--is given to few. It was the only fit end for Richard L. Masland, an eminent neurologist and faithful man, who slipped away a few days before Christmas, ushered out by pneumonia.

The roomy, rambling, century-old frame house under the tall trees in Englewood, New Jersey, where he died is the one the family moved to in 1968, when Dr. Masland left a top job at the National Institutes of Health, in Bethesda, Maryland, to head up the neurology department at Columbia University's College of Physicians and Surgeons in New York. The décor has scarcely changed in 35 years. The last time I visited, a wooden sculpture carved by his daughter Sancie, now pushing 60, as a college girl still sat on the living room mantelpiece; above it was the same embroidered hanging of favorite woodland mushrooms and wildflowers, made by a friend, that had first caught my eye back in Bethesda.

The year before the move to New York, the second Masland daughter, my college roommate Eleanor, and I helped apply the final skin of fiberglass to the hull of the sailboat Dr. Masland had been building in the backyard for 13 years. It's a 33-foot mahogany ketch he called the Meadowlark. Later, I sailed with the Maslands on the Chesapeake Bay and, after the move, on the Hudson. The lines and curves of that lovely boat still seem to me to symbolize the elegance of Dr. Masland's person and life.

He was tall and slender and gracile. By his forties, he had snow white hair. He didn't smoke or drink or even drink coffee, a touch of asceticism traceable no doubt to Methodist origins and Quaker schooling in Philadelphia. His love of nature had been cultivated over 10 youthful summers as a camper and counselor at Flying Moose Lodge, in Maine. In later summers, he took his family to northern Ontario, to go hiking and canoeing at a pristine lake.

Unworldly, he enjoyed success in the world's terms. He is best known for leading a study of more than 50,000 mothers and their children, from pregnancy until the children turned 8, starting in 1959. The purpose was to uncover risk factors for cerebral palsy, but the trove of data relating to physical and mental health and behavioral and social problems proved fruitful far beyond the original intent. He was decorated by President Kennedy and led institutions and organizations of which the National Institute of Neurological Diseases and Stroke, at NIH, the National Epilepsy Society, and the New York Neurologic Society are only a few. During his tenure as president of the World Federation of Neurology, from 1981 to 1989, he and Mrs. Masland traveled the globe, visiting friends on every continent.

One recent tribute, from colleagues at Columbia, speaks of the "gentle manner and wise counsel" that endeared Dr. Masland to everyone. That gentleness, or humility, so attractive in one everywhere recognized as a leader, showed also in his humor. I remember Eleanor years ago reporting a landmark: Her father had indulged in a double entendre at the family table. Of course, the youngest person present was over 20, and the comment was nothing if not mild. Someone had observed that it is said "men make the best nurses," and Dr. Masland had interjected, truthfully, "They try."

In the 1960s, Dr. Masland mentored the unusual genius Carleton Gajdusek, whose work on the New Guinean brain disorder kuru led to his Nobel Prize in 1976 for the discovery of a new disease agent, later named the prion (and implicated now in Mad Cow Disease). When, in the 1990s, Dr. Gajdusek was in trouble with the law--trouble of a kind that would have caused some former associates to distance themselves--Dr. Masland instantly volunteered to appear as a character witness. He had seen in Gajdusek's adoption of dozens of boys from remote Pacific islands, whom Gajdusek educated at his own expense, only the humanitarian aspect it indubitably had, not suspecting the sexual involvement to which Gajdusek in the end pleaded guilty.

Dr. Masland's was a life that proceeded in a straight line, a life of service, to his family, to science, to the sick, to his students, to his country during World War II, when he trained flight surgeons at the Air Force's School of Aviation Medicine--even to nature: A late enthusiasm was the effort to revive the American chestnut tree. It was a life, as far as I know, unscarred by broken friendships or professional reverses. I am not surprised to learn that his childhood inspiration was the work of medical missionaries, including some his family supported through a Methodist church named for them in Sibu, Malaysia.