Dr. Barbara Migeon, a pioneer in genetic science who spent over 60 years working at the Johns Hopkins University, died of heart failure in her Roland Park home Jan. 14. She was 91.
Migeon, born Barbara Ruben to Sara Gitin Ruben and Dr. William Ruben in Rochester, New York, on July 31, 1931, became the sixth female professor at Hopkins in 1978 after spending 16 years as a faculty member. She became a professor emerita of genetic medicine in 2020, continuing to work until her death.
Inspired by the English geneticist Mary Lyon, much of Dr. Migeon’s research focused on the X-inactivation, the process by which one of two X chromosomes is turned off in female mammals.
“How it gets turned on and off, that’s been her life’s work,” said her son, Jacques Migeon, of Seattle.
The topic was the focus of many of her scholarly articles, as well as her first book, “Females are Mosaics,” published in 2007.
“Barbara was focused on a fundamental biological question that carried important implications for health and disease,” said her longtime colleague, Dr. David Valle, a Hopkins genetic medicine professor. “Even until this year, she’s been working on that problem.”
Valle now leads the university’s doctoral program in human genetics and molecular biology, which Migeon was a founding director of in 1978.
The oldest of three children, Migeon was inspired to enter the sciences by her father, a general practitioner, according to her children.
“He was a huge motivation for my mother, he pushed her,” said Dr. Migeon’s daughter, Nicole Migeon, of New York City.
Graduating a year early from Franklin High School in Rochester in 1948, Migeon received a degree in premedical sciences from Smith College, a private women’s college in Massachusetts, in 1952 before attending medical school at the University of Buffalo, graduating in 1956. She then headed to Baltimore to complete her residency at Hopkins.
Dr. Migeon met the late French-born pediatric endocrinologist Dr. Claude Migeon, at a Christmas party at Hopkins in 1957. The couple married three years later in Arlington, Virginia.
Shortly before her marriage, Dr. Migeon worked briefly at Boston Children’s Hospital, only to return to Hopkins where she worked with geneticist Barton Childs.
Dr. Migeon became a faculty member at Hopkins in 1962, and set up her own laboratory to study the X chromosome and sex differences in disease. She became a professor of pediatrics in 1978.
As the sixth female professor at Hopkins, Dr. Migeon became a “tremendous resource” to women who were faculty members at the school of medicine, Valle said.
“She was very supportive of all of our faculty, but especially our faculty who are women,” Valle said, adding that the school has “well in excess of 100″ female faculty members today.
The struggles faced by her fellow women who are physician-scientists was a theme of her second book, “American Science: My View from the Bench,” published in 2016. The book chronicles decades of evolution in the biomedical sciences through Migeon’s own eyewitness account.
Migeon continued working at Hopkins from the early morning hours to late at night, until the COVID-19 pandemic began, Valle said. And once the pandemic started, she continued working those hours from home, becoming a “virtual attendee of every Zoom conference” until her health began deteriorating through the past few months.
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Outside her profession, Dr. Migeon was a collector of pottery and glass crafts, often attending craft shows and becoming friends with local artisans, her children said.
“She had a great visual sense,” Nicole Migeon said, citing her mother’s intuition for look and color as a main reason she became an architect.
Standing at 5 feet 2, Dr. Migeon was a “small, little person with a big personality,” her daughter said.
Authoring over 150 research articles and two books, Dr. Migeon became a stellar writer and editor. Jacques Migeon remembered how when he would hand high school assignments to his mother, they would come back covered in red ink.
Her writing prowess translated to her hobbies, as well— she was a dramaturge to the Fells Point Corner Theatre, writing programs for the community theater she enjoyed.
Survivors include her three children, Jacques, Nicole and Jean-Paul Migeon, of Shelburne Falls, Massachusetts; four grandchildren; and several nieces and nephews. She was preceded in death by her husband, Dr. Claude Migeon, as well as her younger brother, Robert Ruben, and younger sister Sheila Markim.
The family is planning a memorial service in conjunction with Hopkins, but details have not been finalized.