Dr. Daniel B. Drachman, one of the world’s foremost authorities on neuromuscular diseases and a founder of the department of neurology at the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine, who also helped internationally known pianist Leon Fleisher regain the use of his right hand and return to the concert stage, died of a heart attack and infection Oct. 24 at the hospital where he had worked for more than five decades.
The longtime Stevenson resident was 90.
“Dr. Drachman was a leading authority on myasthenia gravis and other neuromuscular diseases,” according to a Johns Hopkins School of Medicine profile announcing his death.
“His four decades of findings on myasthenia gravis, which he determined was an autoimmune illness in which the body’s immune system attacks the nerves receptors in muscles, has transformed it from a frequently fatal disease into a highly treatable one. Research he began on the botulinum toxin in the 1970s also led to the development of Botox as a clinical treatment for neuromuscular ailments.”
Dr. Justin C. McArthur, a neurology professor and director of the Johns Hopkins neurology department, said, “Dan was such a fascinating person.”
“He was a physician-scientist who gave the highest clinical care, but at the same time he did cutting-edge research that became therapies. He was also a mentor and trained more than 100 service deans and department heads all over the world.”
Dr. McArthur added: “His patients loved him and he’d spend hours listening to them. He was an old-fashioned avuncular doc who would listen and not pay attention to the clock or sit there typing on the computer.”
Dr. Daniel Bruce Drachman, was the son of Julian Drachman, a high school English department chair, and Emily Deitchman Drachman, who taught Hebrew. His paternal grandfather, Bernard Drachman, was a founding dean of the Jewish Theological Seminary of America in New York City.
Dr. Drachman was born in Brooklyn, New York, as an identical twin. His brother, David Alexander Drachman, went on to become a pioneering Alzheimer’s disease researcher and the founding chairman of the University of Massachusetts Medical School’s neurology department.
Raised in the Manhattan Beach neighborhood of Brooklyn, the brothers, who stood more than 6-feet tall, graduated from Abraham Lincoln High School in Manhattan Beach. They graduated in 1952 from Columbia College and in 1956 from what was then the New York University College of Medicine, which is today the New York School of Medicine.
They completed internships at Beth Israel Hospital in Boston and residencies in neurology and neuropathology at the Harvard Neurological Unit of Boston City Hospital, and were researchers at the National Institutes of Health.
“They were unusually close and created a language that they only could understood, and they talked several times a day about their neurological patients,” recalled Dr. McArthur. “They were soulmates as well as brothers.”
When his brother died in 2016, Dr. Drachman told The Boston Globe: “To have someone so close at hand who is both a competitor and a supportive best friend is probably the best way of getting things done.
“Throughout our lives, if either had a difficult case to discuss, who would we call? The other one, of course. We talked every day, twice a day.”
From 1960 to 1963, Dr. Drachman worked in research at the NIH when he joined the faculty of Tufts University School of Medicine as an assistant professor of neurology.
In 1969, he joined the newly established department at Hopkins as an assistant professor of neurology and was the founding director of the department’s neuromuscular program. He was promoted to professor in 1974, and six years later, was appointed professor of neuroscience.
Dr. Drachman’s research focused on the origin of neuromuscular disorders and the treatment of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, better known as Lou Gehrig’s disease, and autoimmune neuromuscular disorders.
In 1987, his work made national headlines when his study reveled that patients suffering from muscular dystrophy could delay needing a wheelchair by two years by using prednisone. He directed a 2012 study of a gene-based therapy that stopped the rodent equivalent of myasthenic gravis by focusing on the disease’s destructive immune response.
In order to call attention to the need for ALS research, Dr. Drachman and his wife, Jephta Piatigorsky, whom he married in 1960, embarked on a three-month transcontinental bicycle journey in 1990 that took them 4,605 miles from their home in Stevenson to Seattle.
Dr. Drachman helped Baltimore concert pianist Leon Fleisher regain the use of his right hand. His contribution became part of a 2006 short documentary, “Two Hands: The Leon Fleisher Story” directed by Nathaniel Kahn.
The pianist was preparing for a 1964 concert tour when he discovered that he “couldn’t use the fourth and fifth fingers on his right hand,” The Sun reported in a 2007 review of the film.
A decades long struggle began for Mr. Fleisher, who was forced to learn the left hand repertoire, until Dr. Drachman diagnosed the pianist’s condition in 1990 as focal dystonia, which was not a well known condition at the time, and began treating him with targeted doses of Botox, which was also unprecedented.
“In the case of focal dystonia like Leon’s,” Dr. Drachman explained in the 2007 Sun article, “there’s at least some evidence that it might be learned. “
He added: “Leon’s been very courageous and persistent, and these two things have played a terrific role in his comeback. Even with the use of Botox what we’re able to do is get around the dystonia. But I think people who make the kind of effort Leon has do in fact reprogram their brains to some extent.”
In 2004, Mr. Fleisher was able to make his return run to the concert stage and the two-hand repertoire.
Even though Dr. Drachman had closed his lab some years ago, he was still working at Hopkins seeing patients and lecturing until suffering a heart attack in September, family members said.
In his private life, Dr. Drachman was an accomplished clarinetist who enjoyed playing chamber music with his father-in-law, Gregor Piatigorsky, a noted Russian cellist, who owned two Stradivarius cellos.
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“Chamber music was very important to him,” said a son, Jonathan G. Drachman, of Seattle. “He enjoyed playing chamber music at New Year’s Eve parties.”
He was also an expert fly fisherman who shared his passion for fishing with his brother, and together they enjoyed traveling throughout Wyoming, Alaska and Canada to pursue the sport.
He was also an avid reader who had a “wide range of interests that went from the circus and to many other things,” his son said.
Dr. Drachman was a member of Beth El Congregation.
His wife, an accomplished sculptor and former president of the Shriver Hall Concert Series, died in 2019.
A service was held Oct. 27 at Sol Levinson & Bros. in Pikesville.
In addition to his son, he is survived by two other sons, Evan B. Drachman of Lutherville and Eric E. Drachman of Venice, California; and five grandchildren.