A boy maturing in the 1950s would have had a hard time resisting the Horatio Hornblower novels. Set during the Napoleonic wars, the stories, which began appearing in 1938, combine sweeping adventure on the open seas with an interior journey: the rise of Hornblower from self-doubting midshipman to brilliant admiral who, over and over, saves the day and yet rarely thinks of himself as all that heroic.
Jack Ladenson, who was born in 1942, still reads the series. “Hornblower changes from a kid to a man. His fundamentals don’t change, but you watch him evolve as a person,” says Ladenson, the Oree M. Carroll and Lillian B. Ladenson Professor of Clinical Chemistry at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis. Some might say the same of Ladenson. He has made some of the most important discoveries in the history of clinical chemistry, holds all the main awards in his field, has trained some of its brightest stars, holds an endowed chair, and has helped to create two others. Yet Ladenson, imposing in appearance and stature, retains an almost old-fashioned sense of modesty. In fact, it is tempting to compare the story of Ladenson’s life to Hornblower’s tale—the rise from humble beginnings, the call to leadership, the life-saving missions—just as one might detect the texture of Ladenson’s character in Hornblower’s humility and his uncanny ability to solve problems.
“We often try to get students to see the forest for the trees,” says Mitchell Scott, a former student and a long-time colleague of Ladenson’s at Washington University. “Jack not only sees the forest, he sees through it. He can take a situation and develop solutions before they’re clear to anybody else.”
A case in point: In the late 1970s, researchers were scrambling to develop an assay that would quickly and accurately tell if a heart attack had occurred. Ladenson, working with colleagues, set out to find such a test, an arduous search that culminated in the development of the creatine kinase-MB (CK-MB) monoclonal antibody assay. Over the following years, he would help transform the field of cardiology with the development of 2 more heart attack assays, troponin 1, now the gold standard, and myoglobin.
Of course, Ladenson downplays these achievements. “You get a plan and you have to have the confidence to just try it. If something doesn’t go right, so what? You try something else,” he says. “So what is that, tenacity? I think I probably have that.”
Little in Ladenson’s background suggested he would undertake such a journey. He grew up in Philadelphia, the only son of a Ukrainian-born salesman and an American housewife, in a household that he calls “loose Jewish.” His sisters were significantly older, but he was hardly a spoiled son. “When I was about 11 or 12, I had an allowance but I wanted something that was more money. My parents said no,” he recollects. “So I walked out, walked across the street to an old-fashioned drug store, and got a job as a soda jerk. Maybe that was my first start at being independent.”
That independence would be forged in unexpected ways. After 4 lackluster years at Penn State—“I’d have to be called a late bloomer because I didn’t take college very seriously”—and a brief stint in the National Guard, he entered the graduate program in analytic chemistry at the University of Maryland. His advisor ran a laboratory that left students on their own. “In hindsight, it was a very good thing for me,” Ladenson says.
Graduate school was good in other ways. There Ladenson met his future wife, Ruth, a fellow chemistry graduate student. In 1970, the pair moved to Hartford Hospital, where Ladenson became the first postdoctoral fellow in clinical chemistry, and two years later, to Washington University, where he joined the faculty. He has been there ever since.
It was during his early years there that Ladenson set out to find the CK-MB antibody, a quest some thought quixotic because of the technical difficulties involved. “I can remember a phone conversation where I told him it wouldn’t work. I would’ve been a second-year fellow,” Scott recalls. That a student could offer such pointed criticism, and so casually, reflects on Ladenson’s teaching style. “He was always trying to learn from me,” says David Bruns, professor of pathology at the University of Virginia and a former student. “He lets you figure it out,” says Scott.
Ladenson, who takes obvious pride in his training program in clinical chemistry, the largest in the field, defines his teaching style as follows: “It’s not to make anybody a clone of me. It’s to try to have students in a small group in order to see how they’re thinking about a particular problem as opposed to trying to change their mode of thinking. People come from different backgrounds—that’s why you have to let them learn in the mode that they’re comfortable with.”
Ladenson’s emphasis on individuality is evident in his own persona. He sports a long untrimmed beard and has generally refused to wear a tie, even to his daughter’s wedding. At a dinner in his honor, he was presented with a jacket made out of the most outlandish ties his colleagues could find. “It was the only time anyone has seen him wear a tie—he was real gracious about it,” Bruns recalls. But it is usually Ladenson who does the kidding. He has a wicked sense of humor, by all accounts. “That comes across very quickly,” says Bruns.
In 1996, at the suggestion of a former resident, Ladenson was invited by the founder of Pathologists Overseas to tackle the problem of improving medical services in Eritrea, not an easy task considering its lack of resources. “We came up with the idea of creating a reference laboratory for the entire country,” he says. He extended the plan to Bhutan in 2000 and has continued to work there and in Eritrea.
Ladenson still travels to both countries at least once a year. Add to that trips to Texas and Morocco to visit his daughter, Michele, and son, Jeff, and the growing covey of grandchildren, and it is a wonder there is time for a daily home routine. But he has one. Up at 5:30, he walks one of his two golden retrievers, has breakfast, and is at work by 9. In the old days, he used to bike or walk much of the way, to the amazement of his harried students.
“I was a gung-ho resident, busy every moment. So I asked, ‘What the hell do you think about when you’re walking all that time?’ I thought he’d say something about work,” said Bruns. “‘Oh,’ he said, ‘I see a bird, I think about the bird. I see a tree, I think about the tree.’ There’s something to it. He’ll focus on a specific issue and ideas come to him. But he’s always asking, ‘What can you do to help the patient?’”
Sponsored by the AACC History Division and the Department of Laboratory Medicine, Children’s Hospital Boston
Prepared by Misia Landau
- © 2008 The American Association for Clinical Chemistry