Hopkins professor remembered as compassionate, brilliant scientist

In this 1993 photograph, Dr. Elizabeth O'Hearn is shown holding a slide of a brain tissue sample while accompanied by her late partner, Dr. Mark E. Molliver.
In this 1993 photograph, Dr. Elizabeth O'Hearn is shown holding a slide of a brain tissue sample while accompanied by her late partner, Dr. Mark E. Molliver. (Baltimore Sun photo by Kenneth K. Lam)

Always curious about the inner workings of the human mind, Dr. Elizabeth "Liz" O'Hearn spent Wednesday night listening to a colleague at the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine lecture on new electric therapies for patients with brain disorders.

An accomplished neurologist, Dr. O'Hearn "never stopped trying to learn and understand about neurological disorders," said Dr. Justin McArthur, director of the school's neurology department, where Dr. O'Hearn joined the faculty in 1997.


The following morning, Dr. McArthur received a phone call from Johns Hopkins Hospital telling him Dr. O'Hearn — a clinician, teacher and researcher who broke ground in the field of neurodegenerative diseases — was dead, after being pulled from the waters of the Inner Harbor near her Canton home hours before.

Police were called to the 2300 block of Boston St., where Dr. O'Hearn lived, about 4:45 a.m. and found the scientist in the water. She was pronounced dead less than four hours later. An investigation into her death is continuing, and a report from the state medical examiner is forthcoming, said Deirdre O'Hearn, of New York, who described her elder sister as "an incredible person."


The family released a statement Sunday, saying Dr. O'Hearn, 53, had "dedicated her life to helping others" and would be remembered for her compassion.

"Whether it was a patient at Johns Hopkins or a homeless person on the street, Liz cared," the family statement said. "If the measure of a person's life is the good she has done for others, Liz lived a full and rich life. We will miss her."

Dr. McArthur said he and many others at the school were "hit very hard" by the death of their quiet colleague, who excelled at her work — whether at a patient's bedside or behind a lab microscope— despite tackling the confounding medical field of neurodegenerative disease known as ataxia.

"This has hit not just the neurology community, but the entire Hopkins community," Dr. McArthur said. "She was one of us and part of our family and had been so for a long time, and had not just scientific contributions but had colleagues, friends, collaborators across the institution."

Dr. O'Hearn, a 1985 graduate of the school, entered her field at a time when very little was known about the genetic makeup of the diseases, Dr. McArthur said.

"She chose to investigate a series of diseases, these ataxias, which had really baffled neuroscientists for decades," he said. "At the time she began working on them, there were really no leads as to what went wrong with these disorders. So she began by picking the most difficult problem, if you will."

Dr. O'Hearn collaborated on more than 15 research publications with Dr. Mark E. Molliver, her academic and personal partner, who died in May. She went on to develop "her own tools" for delving into the genetic makeup of the disorders, Dr. McArthur said.

"There were no off-the-shelf tool kits to investigate ataxias," he said.

Those tools are now part of Dr. O'Hearn's medical legacy, which also includes her groundbreaking work on the ataxia known as SCA-12, one of "many different types of ataxias in which she played a role in identifying and characterizing the genetic defect," Dr. McArthur said.

The fact Dr. O'Hearn was also a warm, competent practitioner loved by patients with the diseases she studied — which cause a loss of mobility, speech and other neurological functions — was a testament to her brilliance, Dr. McArthur said.

"To her, it was very natural to be with a patient in the morning and to be looking through a microscope in the afternoon," Dr. McArthur said, noting such schedules are "dwindling" among academics at major institutions. "To be brilliant as she was at both ... it's like playing concert-level piano and also being a great runner."

Dr. O'Hearn was an overachiever from the start, according to her sister. They grew up with four brothers in Wilton, Conn., where O'Hearn was president of her 1977 class, homecoming queen and co-captain of the field hockey team at Wilton High School.


She went on to Yale University, where she sang with "perfect pitch" for the Yale Slavic Chorus and earned dual degrees in biology and Russian and Eastern European Studies in 1981. Her sister said she also studied philosophy at the university. She went on to the Johns Hopkins medical school.

Dr. O'Hearn will be cremated, her sister said. The Johns Hopkins School of Medicine is planning a memorial service.

Dr. O'Hearn also is survived by her mother, Betty O'Hearn of Tucson, Ariz.; four brothers, William J. O'Hearn III of Beijing, Robert O'Hearn of Cave Creek, Ariz., Michael O'Hearn of Tucson and Tierney O'Hearn of Wilton; and many nieces and nephews.


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