Candace Pert, 67, Explorer of the Brain, Dies
Published: September 19, 2013
Candace Pert, a neuroscientist who helped discover a fundamental element of brain chemistry as a graduate student and went on to become a major proponent of alternative medicine, died on Sept. 12 at her home in Potomac, Md. She was 67.
The cause was cardiac arrest, said her sister, Deane Beebe.
Dr. Pert was working at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine in the 1970s when a team she was on found one of the most sought-after objects in brain research: the receptor in the brain that opiates like morphine fit into, like a key in a lock, allowing the drug’s effects to work.
The discovery of the opioid receptor would, in 1978, earn the coveted Albert Lasker Award, often a precursor to theNobel Prize. The award went to Solomon H. Snyder, who headed the lab. Neither Dr. Pert nor any of the other lab assistants was cited.
Such omissions are common in the world of science; the graduate student in the lab rarely gets credit beyond being the first name on the papers describing the research. But Dr. Pert did something unusual: she protested, sending a letter to the head of the foundation that awards the prize, saying she had “played a key role in initiating the research and following it up” and was “angry and upset to be excluded.”
Her letter caused a sensation in the field. Some saw her exclusion as an example of the burdens and barriers women face in science careers.
In a 1979 article about Dr. Pert in the The Washington Post, Dr. Snyder, who had lauded Dr. Pert’s contributions in his Lasker acceptance speech, argued that “that’s the way the game is played,” adding that today’s graduate students will be tomorrow’s lab chiefs, and that “when they have students, it will be the same.”
The two later reconciled. In an e-mail interview on Wednesday, Dr. Snyder, now a professor in the Solomon H. Snyder Department of Neuroscience at Johns Hopkins, called Dr. Pert “one of the most creative, innovative graduate students I had ever mentored.”
Dr. Pert continued her career at the National Institute of Mental Health, where she continued to do pioneering work on receptors and the peptides that correspond to them, coming to conclusions that steered her toward alternative medicine.
She became a leading proponent of the unity of mind and body, and the ability of emotions to affect health. When Bill Moyers, in a 1993 PBS special, “Healing and the Mind,” asked her, “Are you saying that the mind talks to the body, so to speak, through these neuropeptides?” she answered, “Why are you making the mind outside of the body?” She was also featured prominently in the 2004 film “What the #$*! Do We Know!?” which attempted to bridge science and spirituality.
In her best-known book, “Molecules of Emotion: The Science Behind Mind-Body Medicine,” published in 1997, Dr. Pert advocated a more holistic approach to understanding health.
“I’ve come to believe that virtually all illness, if not psychosomatic in foundation, has a definite psychosomatic component,” she wrote. The “molecules of emotion,” she argued, “run every system in our body,” creating a “bodymind’s intelligence” that is “wise enough to seek wellness” without a great deal of high-tech medical intervention.
The author Deepak Chopra, who wrote the foreword to “Molecules of Emotion,” called the book a “landmark in our understanding of the mind body connection.” Dr. Miles Herkenham, a former colleague at the National Institute of Mental Health, said that it may seem odd to an outside observer that a scientist of Dr. Pert’s training would go into what he called the “squishy world” of alternative medicine. But “the common theme that underlies all of her work is her knowledge as a pharmacologist of ligands — peptides — and how they work through receptors,” he said, adding, “She followed her own passions.”
Her work led Dr. Pert to team up with her husband, Dr. Michael Ruff, an immunologist, to investigate another protein, peptide T. They hoped that it would be effective in fightingH.I.V. by blocking the entry of the virus into cells. While the drug showed promise, it has not led to a successful treatment. Dr. Pert published more than 250 scientific papers on peptides.
In more recent years she and Dr. Ruff founded a company, Rapid Pharmaceuticals, that is developing peptide-based drugs to treat Alzheimer’s, cardiovascular disease and other diseases by fighting the inflammation that underlies many chronic medical conditions.
Candace Beebe was born on June 26, 1946, in Manhattan. Her father, Robert, was a commercial artist, and her mother, Mildred, worked in the courts as a clerk typist. She graduated with a degree in biology from Bryn Mawr College and earned a doctorate in pharmacology from the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine. She also became interested in psychology but ultimately sought a more solid scientific basis for behavior.
“I wanted there to be a field that looked for the biochemical substrate of psychology,” she said. “That field didn’t really exist at the time. But I began to search for it, and it began to exist.”
Her first marriage, to Agu Pert, a fellow researcher, ended in divorce; they had three children, Brandon, Evan and Vanessa Pert Haneberg, all of whom survive her. Besides her sister, Ms. Beebe, and Dr. Ruff, she is survived by a grandson.
One of the friends scheduled to speak at Dr. Pert’s memorial service, planned for late October, is Solomon Snyder.