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Biography of Nancy Wexler

Name: Nancy Wexler
Bith Date: July 19, 1945
Death Date:
Place of Birth: Washington, D.C, United States
Nationality: American
Gender: Female
Occupations: neuropsychologist
Nancy Wexler

Psychologist Nancy Wexler (born 1945) researches Huntington's disease. She developed a presymptomatic test for the condition and identified the genes responsible for the disease.

Nancy Wexler's research on Huntington's disease has led to the development of a presymptomatic test for the condition as well as the identification of the genes responsible for the disease. The symptoms of this fatal, genetically based disorder (for which Wexler herself is at risk) usually appear around middle age, and the disease leads to the degeneration of mental, psychological, and physical functioning. For her pivotal role in these achievements, Wexler was granted the Albert Lasker Public Service Award in 1993.

Nancy Sabin Wexler was born on July 19, 1945, to Milton Wexler, a Los Angeles psychoanalyst, and Leonore Sabin Wexler. She studied social relations and English at Radcliffe and graduated in 1967. Wexler subsequently traveled to Jamaica on a Fulbright scholarship and studied at the Hampstead Clinic Child Psychoanalytic Training Center in London.

In 1968 Wexler learned that her mother had developed the symptoms of Huntington's disease, a condition to which Wexler's maternal grandfather and three uncles had already succumbed. Efforts to fight the disease became a primary mission for Wexler and her family: Her father founded the Hereditary Disease Foundation in 1968, and Wexler herself, who was then entering the doctoral program in clinical psychology at the University of Michigan, eventually wrote her doctoral thesis on the "Perceptual-motor, Cognitive, and Emotional Characteristics of Persons-at-Risk for Huntington's Disease," and received her Ph.D. in 1974.

After graduating from University of Michigan, Wexler taught psychology at the New School for Social Research in New York City and worked as a researcher on Huntington's disease for the National Institutes of Health (NIH). In 1976 she was appointed by congress to head the NIH's Commission for the Control of Huntington's Disease and its Consequences. In 1985 she joined the College of Physicians and Surgeons at Columbia University.

In 1979 Wexler's research led her to Lake Maracaibo in Venezuela, where she studied a community which had a high incidence of Huntington's disease. Wexler kept medical records, took blood and skin samples, and charted the transmission of the disease within families. Wexler sent the samples she collected to geneticist James Gusella at Massachusetts General Hospital, who used the blood samples to conduct a study to locate the gene--the first such genetic mapping of a disease. Gusella eventually discovered a deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA) marker close to the Huntington's gene. Based on this study, Gusella introduced a test that was ninety-six percent accurate in detecting whether an individual bears the Huntington's gene. Because there was still no cure for the Huntington's disease, the test proved to be controversial, raising many issues involving patient rights, childbearing decisions, and discrimination by employers and insurance companies. In her interviews and writings Wexler has stressed the importance of keeping such genetic information confidential.

In 1993 the Huntington's gene was identified through research based on the Venezuelan blood samples and the work of the Huntington's Disease Collaborative Research Group. In October, 1993, Wexler received an Albert Lasker Public Service Award for her role in this effort. In addition, she has served as an advisor on social and medical ethics issues to the Human Genome Project--a massive international effort to map and identify the approximately 100,000 genes in the human body. Wexler also has assumed directorship of the Hereditary Disease Foundation founded by her father, to which she donated the honorarium that accompanied the Lasker Award.

Today, Wexler continues to serve as president of the HDF and Higgins professor of neuropsychology at Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons.

Historical Context

  • The Life and Times of Nancy Wexler (1945-)
  • At the time of Wexler's birth:
  • Harry S Truman was president of the United States
  • First atomic bomb was detonated in New Mexico
  • George Orwell published Animal Farm
  • Women gained the vote in France
  • The times:
  • 1939-1945: World War II
  • 1950-1953: Korean War
  • 1957-1975: Vietnam War
  • 1991: Persian Gulf War
  • 1992-1996: Civil war in Bosnia
  • Wexler's contemporaries:
  • Tammy Wynette (1942-) U.S. country singer
  • Newt Gingrich (1943-) U.S. politician
  • Bernadine Healy (1944-) U.S. physician
  • Jose Feliciano (1945-) Argentinean singer
  • Diane Sawyer (1945-) U.S. journalist
  • Bill Clinton (1946-) U.S. president
  • Selected world events:
  • 1947: Taft-Hartley Act restricted labor's ability to strike
  • 1958: James Watson and Francis Crick developed model of DNA molecule
  • 1966: National Organization for Women (NOW) was founded
  • 1967: Christiaan Barnard performed world's first heart transplant
  • 1969: Woodstock Music and Art Festival was held in upstate New York
  • 1973: U.S. Supreme Court legalized abortion
  • 1978: Louise Brown, the first "test tube baby," was born
  • 1981: First space shuttle, Columbia, was launched

Further Reading

  • Newsmakers, Gale, 1992, pp. 530-33.
  • U.S. News & World Report, April 22, 1985, pp. 75-76.
  • Bluestone, Mimi, "Science and Ethics: The Double Life of Nancy Wexler," in Ms., November/December 1991, pp. 90-91.
  • Grady, Denise, "The Ticking of a Time Bomb in the Genes," in Discover, June 1987.
  • Jaroff, Leon, "Making the Best of a Bad Gene," in Time, February 10, 1992, pp. 78-79.
  • Konner, Melvin, "New Keys to the Mind," in New York Times Magazine, July 17, 1988, pp. 49-50.
  • New York Times, October 1, 1993, p. A24.
  • Women's International Center, "Nancy Wexler," at: http://www.wic.org/bio/nwexler.htm (March 14, 2002).
  • Association of Neuroscience Departments and Programs, "Dr. Nancy Wexler: 1997 Education Award Winner," at: http://www.andp.org/news&events/wexler.htm (March 14, 2002).
  • Xrefer.com, "Nancy Wexler (1946): American clinical psychologist," at: http://w1.xrefer.com/entry/173532 (March 14, 2002).

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