Robert Katzman, MD, Professor Emeritus of Neurosciences and founding director of the Shiley-Marcos Alzheimer's Disease Research Center at the University of California-San Diego (UCSD) School of Medicine, died on Sept. 16 at his home in La Jolla, CA, after a long illness. He was 82 years old.
Dr. Katzman, formerly chair of the neurology department at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine and the Florence Riford Chair for Research in Alzheimer's Disease at the UCSD, was renowned for his activism on behalf of Alzheimer disease (AD). Dr. Katzman's highly influential 1976 editorial in Archives of Neurology, “The Prevalence and Malignancy of Alzheimer's Disease: A Major Killer,” was the first to conclude that senile dementia was not a normal part of the aging process, but rather a disease, and that it affected the elderly as well as those under age 65. He identified AD as a major public health problem and the most frequent progressive dementia during aging.
Today, nearly 5.2 million Americans are living with AD, which includes between 200,000–500,000 people under age 65 with young-onset AD or other dementias, according to the Alzheimer's Association.
Born in Denver in 1925, Dr. Katzman later served in the Navy during World War II and received his undergraduate degree at the University of Chicago. In 1953 he earned his medical degree from Harvard Medical School, and then completed his neurology residency at the Neurological Institute at Columbia-Presbyterian Hospital. He served as neurology chair at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine in the Bronx, NY, from 1964 to 1984.
While in New York he studied brain electrolytes and brain swelling resulting from toxins and tumors, and co-edited the first neurochemistry text Basic Neurochemistry (1972). In the 1960s and 1970s, he became increasingly interested in dementia and AD and conducted multiple clinical and pathological studies of dementia patients. At that time, AD — first described in 1906 by Alois Alzheimer, MD — was considered a rare form of senile dementia that primarily affected patients younger than 65.
In 1977, Dr. Katzman and neuropathologist Robert Terry, MD, organized the first national conference on AD. Its success in capturing the attention of scientists and the public ushered in a wave of research and millions in funding over the next decades. Four years later, he helped create the Alzheimer's Disease and Related Disorders Association, later renamed the Alzheimer's Association, a major source of research funding and patient advocacy.
Drs. Katzman and Terry both moved to the UCSD in 1984. There, Dr. Katzman became chairman of the department of neurosciences and began building one of the major centers for AD research, the Shiley-Marcos Alzheimer's Disease Research Center, one of only five such specialized AD centers in the country funded by the National Institute on Aging.
When he first came to UCSD in 1987, Mark H. Tuszynski, MD, PhD, professor of neurosciences and the director the Center for Neural Repair at the UCSD, was trained by Dr. Katzman to conduct neurological exams in AD patients. “Bob Katzman's effect on global awareness of Alzheimer disease can scarcely be exaggerated,” he said, because he helped to establish the foundations of modern research and “transformed our perception of Alzheimer disease from that of a rare disorder to one of the most disabling, common, costly, and tragic disorders afflicting society.”
“His contributions continued throughout his life in his research, in the large number of clinicians that he trained, and in the clinical investigative research that he helped foster,” Dr. Tuszynski added.
Michael S. Raffi, MD, assistant professor of neurosciences and the director of the Memory Disorders Clinic at the UCSD Alzheimer's Disease research center, said that he had been privileged to observe both Drs. Katzman and Leon Thal, MD, [who died last year in a plane crash at age 62] discuss cases involving AD. “It was both enthralling and humbling,” he said. “With regard to dementing illnesses, they had seen it all, and in many ways, defined how the rest of the world sees it as well.”
Dr. Raffii added that Dr. Katzman would “always provide the most definitive, eloquent, and well-thought out explanation for how he reached his conclusions regarding a diagnosis.”
Dr. Katzman served as president of the American Neurological Association (1985–1986), was a member of the Advisory Council of the National Institute of Aging (1982–1985), and won numerous awards including the S. Weir Mitchell Award from the AAN in 1960, the Potamkin Prize for Research in Pick's, Alzheimer's, and Related Diseases from the AAN (1992), and the Crystal Tower Award as Pioneer in Alzheimer's Disease Research from the Alzheimer's Association (1998). For his lifetime work in AD research, the AAN Foundation established in 2006 the Robert Katzman, MD, Fund, which supports groundbreaking neurological research.
Dr. Katzman is survived by his wife, Nancy; two sons, David and Daniel; and a grandson, Jesse. Contributions may be sent to the Shiley-Marcos Alzheimer's Disease Research Center at UCSD (adrc.ucsd.edu/giving.html) or to the AAN Foundation fund, the “Giants of Neurology” (www.aan.com/go/foundation/giants).