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Short Course participants, 1965.

50 years back to the future

by Luther Young

Personalized medicine. Genetics and health. While these have only recently become hot topics in laboratories, clinics and news media around the world, the merging of genetics with medicine has drawn special attention at The Jackson Laboratory for two weeks every summer for 50 years.

The dedication and vision of the "father of genetic medicine," Victor McKusick, M.D., launched the Short Course on Medical and Experimental Mammalian Genetics in 1960 and has kept it going strong since. Sadly, it won't be McKusick who rings the starting bell outside the Laboratory's C.C. Little Auditorium the morning of July 20, 2009. Another hand will open the 50th annual session of the Short Course, the world's most prestigious genetics education course.

The beloved Johns Hopkins University physician and pioneering geneticist died on July 22, 2008, at age 86. In an era in which the remarkable similarities between mouse and human genetics remained largely unexplored, McKusick saw into the future and established one of the first clinics for patients with inherited disease conditions.

"It seemed to me that [The Jackson Laboratory] did the same thing that we did [in the clinic], namely, identify deviant phenotypes [traits] and try to determine whether these are genetic; if so, how they are inherited, what is the basic defect, and what can one do about them," he recalled in an oral history interview in 1998.

The Short Course has paralleled and influenced the evolution of modern genetic science over the last half century.

The goals of McKusick's legacy course, known to the biomedical community as the "Bar Harbor Course," remained steadfastly the same at the time of his death. As an enduring collaboration between The Jackson Laboratory and Johns Hopkins, the Short Course has paralleled and influenced the evolution of modern genetic science over the last half century.

"The Short Course continues to be one of the most effective means of teaching how to integrate the power of the mouse and human clinical genetics to better understand the mechanisms of human disease," says Richard Woychik, Ph.D., president and CEO of The Jackson Laboratory.

The roster of lecturers reads like a Who's Who of the biomedical community. Under McKusick's guidance, they came to Bar Harbor under a long-standing formula of equally dividing courses among speakers from The Jackson Laboratory, Hopkins and other prominent academic and research institutions. Faculty has grown from 28 in 1960 to 55 last year, with a total of 638 through 2008.

The 45 students who gathered in 1960 primarily included medical students and academic physicians. By 2008, the mix of 121 students included researchers from pharmaceutical and technology companies, faculty from dental and veterinary schools, and graduate students. Total student participation through 2008 numbered 4,754.

The event also offers opportunities to enjoy Acadia National Park and other areas of Downeast Maine. A Maine native, McKusick once observed: "It didn't hurt that we would be meeting on the Maine coast." More important than sightseeing, the Short Course allows students to converse one-on-one with the very scientists who wrote the textbooks these students read in school.