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Alden Spencer
Eric Kandel Scientist
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As we're coming to Columbia, I heard a very disappointing and painful piece of news. Alden Spencer, my closest scientific colleague, and a wonderful, wonderful friend, developed amyotrophic lateral sclerosis. The way we found out about that is Alden was a very good tennis player, and he began to complain about having difficulty hitting backhands, he couldn't get his shoulder around, he had some weakness in his elbow. And we talked about it, and we thought it would be very good for him to see an excellent neurologist. And so I knew somebody who was really quite outstanding, and I sent Alden to him, I suggested Alden see him. This person was a specialist in amyotrophic lateral sclerosis [ALS], and he said to Alden that you have amyotrophic lateral sclerosis. Alden came back from seeing him and was ready to jump out the window. He was unbelievably depressed, he started preparing his will, going through his belongings, and he was just absolutely distraught. I spoke to his wife, Diane, about this, and she was very upset as well. And it dawned on me that maybe we should seek another opinion. Now Alden complained about stiffness of the elbow that sounded more like an arthritic condition. So I suggested that maybe he see somebody who specializes in arthritis. So somebody recommended a guy at NYU, and he saw this guy, and the guy said, 'You don't have ALS, you have arthritis. And that explains everything.' Alden felt immensely relieved, went back to work his usual energetic self. After six weeks he had another appointment with the neurologist, he went back to him, and the neurologist said, 'You have ALS. I have a lot of experience with this disease, you have amyotrophic lateral sclerosis.' Alden came back ready to jump out the window.

I call up the neurologist, who is a colleague of mine, and I said, 'Look, Alden can't handle this. Can't you soft peddle that in some way?' He said, 'I can't mislead a patient, and particularly this man has an important career, you don't want to mislead him.' Well I disagreed, I was prepared to mislead him, because he couldn't handle that diagnosis. So I said to… he said to me, this neurologist, 'Why does he have to come and see me? There's nothing I can do for him, let him go to this other guy, let him be deceived.' So I told Alden, 'Look, this is a waste of time. You continue to see this orthopaedist guy, this guy who specialises in joints.' And so he continued to do that, he did exercises, he had a special contraption that allowed him to get into his swimming pool, he, you know, continued to work out of a wheelchair, and for a while he considered that maybe to a warmer climate… moving to a warmer climate, would be helpful for his arthritis. In fact, a friend of his offered him an opportunity to move some place in the south, I forget now where it was. The chairman of that department came down to see him. He sat in the wheelchair, and he said, 'I can't do experiments myself, but I supervise all the experiments. They continue to do well.' They offered him a job. He came home, and he told Diane he wants to move to this place in the south, and Diane said, 'I'll move if you seek another opinion. Because moving means we move the kids out of school, into another school. I'm willing to do that, but I'd like to get another opinion.' And Alden said, 'You know what will happen if I seek another opinion, the person will say I have ALS. I don't want to seek another opinion.'

So Alden continued to work, and ultimately died the day after he'd been in the lab, the previous day. Not only that, but because we had such a heavy emphasis on sort of cellular molecular approaches at Columbia, he organized a group of people from Rockefeller and NYU on systems neuroscience, because he was now working on the somatosensory system. They would meet every three or four weeks, and he just had a meeting of that group a few days before that.

So this was a tragic loss, but given the circumstances… But he was so meaningful to Columbia and to me, to all of his friends, that we established an endowed lectureship in his name, the Alden Spencer Lectureship, which is an award given to major neuroscientists under the age of 50, and a number of outstanding people… I mean, everyone who wins it is outstanding, but a number of people have gone on to win Nobel prizes and other major awards and that.

Eric Kandel (b. 1929) is an American neuropsychiatrist. He was a recipient of the 2000 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for his research on the physiological basis of memory storage in neurons. He shared the prize with Arvid Carlsson and Paul Greengard. Kandel, who had studied psychoanalysis, wanted to understand how memory works. His mentor, Harry Grundfest, said, 'If you want to understand the brain you're going to have to take a reductionist approach, one cell at a time.' Kandel then studied the neural system of the sea slug Aplysia californica, which has large nerve cells amenable to experimental manipulation and is a member of the simplest group of animals known to be capable of learning. Kandel is a professor of biochemistry and biophysics at the College of Physicians and Surgeons at Columbia University. He is also Senior Investigator in the Howard Hughes Medical Institute. He was the founding director of the Center for Neurobiology and Behavior, which is now the Department of Neuroscience at Columbia University. Kandel's popularized account chronicling his life and research, 'In Search of Memory: The Emergence of a New Science of Mind', was awarded the 2006 Los Angeles Times Book Award for Science and Technology.

Listeners: Christopher Sykes

Christopher Sykes is an independent documentary producer who has made a number of films about science and scientists for BBC TV, Channel Four, and PBS.

Tags: Alden Spencer

Duration: 5 minutes, 12 seconds

Date story recorded: June 2015

Date story went live: 04 May 2016