At her portrait unveiling, Dr. Magenis and her accomplishments take center stage

March 24, 2012

Dr. Magenis

On March 19, the Department of Molecular & Medical Genetics honored the professional accomplishments of clinical cytogenetics and medical genetics pioneer R. Ellen Magenis, MD R'71, Professor Emerita of Molecular & Medical Genetics and Pediatrics. The celebration was capped by the unveiling of a portrait of Dr. Magenis.

About 50 people attended the event, including Dr. Magenis, her family members and lab technicians who had worked in Dr. Magenis's lab for many years.

Dr. Magenis was the long-time director of the OHSU Clinical Cytogenetics Laboratory, which specializes in state-of-the-art chromosome analysis. "Just about anyone who has ever had an amniocentesis or cancer diagnosis in Oregon has probably been tested through Ellen's lab," said Susan Hayflick MD, Chair of the Department of Molecular & Medical Genetics. "She's had a quietly profound impact on the lives of Oregonians and people around the world." Dr. Magenis is also on the clinical faculty of the Genetic and Birth Defects Program at OHSU's Child Development and Rehabilitation Center.

In addition to her clinical work, Dr. Magenis has made major research contributions to the field of genetics. Her first major research project involved a heritable fragile site on the long (q) arm of chromosome 16. She traced this 16q fragile site through a multigenerational family and, together with Drs. Hecht and Lovrien, she linked the 16q fragile site to the gene for haptoglobin.The mapping of haptoglobin to 16q was the second instance in which a human gene was mapped to a specific autosome (non-sex chromosome), presaging the human genome project.

In the 1980s, Dr. Magenis identified and described what would become known as Smith-Magenis Syndrome (SMS), along with Ann C. M. Smith, an NIH genetic counselor. Most patients diagnosed with SMS, a rare developmental disorder, are missing genetic material from chromosome 17. Dr. Magenis also pursued research in areas such as gene mapping, chromosomal abnormalities and problems in sex determination. She has authored or co-authored almost 300 publications.

Dr. Magenis earned her MD from Indiana University Medical School in 1952. After dedicating time to raising six children, Dr. Magenis returned to medicine in 1964 for an internship in Portland, and in 1965 was invited to help launch the OHSU Genetics Clinic under Dr. Robert Koler. She also completed a pediatric residency followed by a genetics fellowship. She joined the faculty as an instructor and become full professor in 1980.

Susan Olson, PhD '84, Professor of Molecular & Medical Genetics and current director of the OHSU Clinical Cytogenetics Lab, gave some remarks at the portrait unveiling. Dr. Olson started her OHSU career as a volunteer in Dr. Magenis's lab. "Dr. Magenis took me under her wing," recalled Dr. Olson in an earlier SoM News article. "I fell in love with chromosomes and eventually became one of her graduate students."

It was Dr. Magenis who encouraged Dr. Olson to appreciate the role of clinician-scientist long before the term became widespread. "She took me into the clinic and away from the bench," Dr. Olson said, "and told me, 'Remember the patients for whom you are trying to make a difference. Value them, respect them, because they are part of you and your work.' I will never forget that."  

Dr. Magenis's portrait is the first in a series that will honor Molecular & Medical Genetics faculty who have made outstanding contributions to their field, said Dr. Hayflick.