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A Life in the Lab

At age 90, a much-honored neuroscientist enjoys the most exciting moment of her career

For her 90th birthday, Pat McGeer hit on the perfect gift for Edith “Edie” Graef McGeer ’44, his wife and neuroscience collaborator: He applied for a patent on a new compound she had suggested synthesizing.

The patent application is a step in the McGeers’ multiyear effort to develop a potential anti-inflammatory treatment for Alzheimer’s disease, macular degeneration, and some cancers. Their company, Aurin Biotech, is ushering its first product, AUR1107, through preclinical testing. They’re hoping for FDA approval to begin clinical trials on human subjects in early 2015.

This research is the capstone of a life of remarkable work. When 16-year-old Edie Graef declared a chemistry major in 1940 at Swarthmore, science wasn’t considered a fitting profession for women. The chemistry department head lectured her for a half-hour about the futility of her interest after she asked (and got) permission to join his classes. 

What else could she do? Mathematics had seized her imagination when she was 5, and William, the family’s chauffeur, while driving her and her brother between their Bronx home and private schools in Manhattan, taught her to solve fraction problems mentally. 

Having skipped grades at the prestigious St. Agatha’s School for Girls, she was conspicuous for her love of math. Her mother was overprotective and, by graduation, Edie knew only two boys: her brother and a cousin. She chose Swarthmore, she says, because it had male students. 

Swarthmore was a perfect fit. “It had people who could put up with anybody, even me,” she jokes. That eventually included the chemistry chair, who enlisted her as a lab assistant after his male assistants left for World War II service.

Graduating Phi Beta Kappa in chemistry, Edie headed to the University of Virginia, completing a doctorate in organic chemistry in two years. 

In 1946, at 22, Edie became a research chemist at the DuPont Experimental Station, one of the world’s first industrial research labs. She made two life-changing discoveries there: She suggested a route to synthesizing tetracyanoethylene, opening the way to a new branch of organic chemistry that led to patents and citations. And she married a colleague, Patrick McGeer. Their 59-year collaboration produced discoveries and insights that helped launch the field of neuroscience as well as three children, all of whom have earned doctorates.

“Scientists are essentially children who’ve never grown up,” Edie says. In 1954, the McGeers moved to Pat’s native Vancouver, B.C. She became a research assistant at the University of British Columbia medical school’s Division of Neurological Research, eventually heading the department. The couple collaborated at UBC’s Kinsmen Laboratory of Neurological Research, where she now is a professor emerita. Retired at 65, as UBC required then, Edie continues working half days, seven days a week, as an unpaid volunteer, editing, writing, and analyzing research data.

You could fill pages with the achievements of this modest, likeable scientist: 10 patents, 525 scientific articles, and a co-authored textbook, Molecular Neurobiology of the Mammalian Brain, with Pat and Nobel laureate/neuroscience pioneer Sir John Eccles. A fellow of the Royal Society of Canada, she’s received three honorary degrees and the Order of Canada.

In 2001, the International Scientific Institute named Edie and Pat among the 100 most highly cited researchers in neuroscience.

Years ago, in a group of neuroscientists being bused around Québec, Edie was seated next to a young researcher. He confided his loneliness, working in this new branch of science with few kindred souls in his city. “Where are you from?” he asked Edie. She told him. “Ah,” he said, enviously, “but you have the McGeers.”