Dr. Donald L. Price, a retired Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine professor who was considered a giant in the field of neuroscience and a leading Alzheimer’s disease researcher, died of a neurological disorder May 5 at his Greenville, North Carolina, home. The former Columbia resident was 87.
“Don was a giant in the field of neuroscience, which was his focus. He was a very thoughtful man and very much the quintessential absent-minded professor who was excited about ideas and medicine,” said Dr. Charles G. Eberhart, who succeeded Dr. Price as director of the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine’s Department of Neurology.
“He was larger-than-life and also physically large. He was burly with a head of silver hair and that reminded me of Tip O’Neill [Thomas P. O’Neill, former speaker of the House of Representatives]. He was a glad-hander with a gravely voice and a New Englander who always dominated the room,” Dr. Eberhart said.
Dr. Lee J. Martin is a professor of pathology at Hopkins and has been a colleague of Dr. Price’s since the late 1980s.
“I got to know Don at the time he created the Alzheimer’s Research Center at Hopkins and he had a genuine leadership that was uncommon and you hardly see today,” Dr. Martin said.
“He was a towering individual who was galvanizing and full of energy and science. It was an awesome privilege to be a part of that as a young investigator,” he said.
“He was a pathfinder that created opportunities for young scientists and enduring memories that led to our careers,” Dr. Martin said. “He gave everyone an opportunity and they wanted to work with him. He had so many trainees that have gone on out across the states and the world. That was his brand.”
Born and raised in Stamford, Connecticut, Donald Lowell Price was the son of William Lowell Price, an AT&T executive, and Edith Ann Price, a homemaker and Welcome Wagon hostess.
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After graduating in 1952 from the King School in Stamford, Dr. Price earned a bachelor’s degree in 1956 from Wesleyan University in Middletown, Connecticut, but medicine wasn’t his first career choice.
In college, he was a humanities and English major, studying how poetry and psychology were linked. He spent summers playing semipro baseball for $20 a game and traveled the South taping folk music performers.
“What I wanted to be when I grew up was a folk singer,” he told The Baltimore Sun in 1992. “But I couldn’t carry a tune and I couldn’t play the banjo or the guitar so I decided to try something different.”
He began his medical studies at the Albany Medical College in New York, thinking he would become a psychiatrist but soon found out he didn’t have the “temperament” for it, according to The Sun. He was more interested in the brain’s role in abnormal behavior and pursued neurology.
He obtained his medical degree in 1961 from Albany, which was followed by an internship at New England Medical Center in Boston, where he completed his medical residency.
From 1963 to 1966, Dr. Price was a neurology resident, including one year of neuropathology at Massachusetts General Hospital, where he was also chief resident.
Dr. Price was a neurologist from 1966 to 1968 at the National Naval Medical Center in Bethesda before returning to Harvard University’s Biological Laboratory as a research fellow.
Dr. Price taught neurology and neuropathology at the Massachusetts General Hospital from 1965 to 1969, and held teaching positions at Harvard Medical School before coming to the Hopkins School of Medicine in 1971 as an associate professor in the departments of neurology and pathology.
From 1978 to 2010, he was a professor in the departments of pathology and neurology; and from 1983 to 2010, was a professor in the department of neuroscience at the medical school.
Dr. Price was director of the Alzheimer’s Disease Research Center at the Hopkins School of Medicine from 1985 to 2010.
His primary research was geared toward Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease as well as amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, known as Lou Gehrig’s disease.
“And he made seminal discoveries,” Dr. Martin said.
In his research, Dr. Price and his colleagues created a colony of mice — called “transgenic mice” — in the early 1990s that were specifically engineered to carry the human gene for Alzheimer’s. The hope was that this would lead them to find treatments for the degenerative disease.
“We really don’t want to oversell this, but it’s of enormous value to have a small animal model that reproduces features of human disease,” he explained in 1993 to The Baltimore Sun. “We’d have an enormous leg up on understanding the mechanisms as well as the diagnosis and treatment of Alzheimer’s.”
“He was demanding but in a very good way. He inspired people to work harder and be better. He could be very critical if you were doing something new or novel, and he’d let you know about it,” Dr. Martin said.
Dr. Price, who wrote and lectured widely on neuroscience issues and whose work brought him great acclaim and numerous awards, served in 1984 on the House of Representatives Committee on Science and Technology in regards to Alzheimer’s disease.
Dr. Price had a reputation of being something of a blithe spirit.
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“Don was very outgoing and his office door was always open,” recalled Dr. Martin. “If my door was open, he’d stop in and want to talk science or literature. He’d talk about Dante or walk the halls of Hopkins reciting Lewis Carroll’s ‘Jabberwocky.’”
He retired in 2010.
In his private life, he was an avid reader of everything from the classics to Shakespeare, said his wife of 67 years, the former Helen A. Blanchard, who worked in the field of epidemiology.
He also enjoyed listening to classical music, biking [he once biked across the United States], running and swimming. When he was younger, he completed an Iron Man triathlon.
“We spent summers at Wood Hole, Massachusetts, because there was a scientific community there,” Mrs. Price said. “He had an amazing mind and could talk about anything.”
Plans for a celebration of life gathering to be held at Hopkins are incomplete.
In addition to his wife, Dr. Price is survived by two sons, Dr. Donald L. Price Jr. of Stamford, Connecticut, and Dr. William L. Price of Greenville, North Carolina; a daughter, Dr. Elaine Price Schwartz of Greenville, North Carolina; two brothers, Dr. Richard W. Price of San Francisco and Robert E. Price of Schoharie, New York; and eight grandchildren.