Leon Chesley

Leon Chesley


Leon Chesley's death on March 29, 2000, marked the end of an era in academic obstetrics and gynecology. It is doubtful that anyone in the second half of the 20th century equaled his depth and breadth of influence on the intellectual life of our discipline. Dr. Chesley was a great natural scientist, and great scientists from da Vinci to Einstein have proven how much can be accomplished by simple methods, objective observations, and critical analysis of the data. Great scientists, furthermore, demonstrate their objectivity in reversing their opinions as convincing new data are provided. The best known example, perhaps, in Dr. Chesley's case was the retraction of his view on the relationship of the duration of preeclampsia to the likelihood of permanent chronic hypertension.

The respect in which Dr. Chesley was held by his colleagues in this country and abroad was matched by the personal affection that he engendered in them. His creativity, integrity, and scientific discipline inspired countless budding academicians and left a profound academic legacy. Dr. Chesley was a true natural philosopher who worked with the simplest tools but the sharpest powers of observation, an extraordinary memory, and a unique ability to conceptualize. He designed experiments based on the null hypothesis long before that term came into common parlance. Particularly in view of the shift in priorities of our discipline, it is most unlikely that he will ever be replaced.

Dr. Chesley, who preferred to be called Ches by his family and friends, was born Carey Commodore Chesley on May 22, 1908, in Montrose, Pennsylvania, the eldest of 3 children of Leon and Gertrude Chesley. His siblings, Mary and Ray, died a few years ago. Ches greatly admired his father, whose name he assumed, and whose irreverence he enjoyed and amplified. The Chesley family moved to Hop Bottom in northeastern Pennsylvania, where Ches grew up. He enrolled in nearby Susquehanna College but left in amusing circumstances without a degree. He was, nevertheless, admitted to Duke University, where he received the degree of Ph.D. in zoology in 1932, perhaps the only such degree awarded to a student with no prior academic credentials. His doctoral thesis on water metabolism in fish was perhaps the original source of his lifelong interest in regulation of salt and water, which led, much later, to his classic studies of normal and preeclamptic pregnancy.

Because 1932 was the depth of the great depression, Ches worked for a while as a barber until he was appointed an assistant biophysicist at Memorial Hospital in New York City. At that hospital, he studied the cellular effects of radiation and of deuterium oxide, which he had purified in the laboratory of Harold Urey. In 1934, he moved to the Margaret Hague maternity hospital in Jersey City as a clinical chemist. There, with the encouragement of Dr. Samuel Cosgrove, the director of obstetrics and gynecology, he became interested in a water-retaining disorder of pregnancy, which he learned was called preeclampsia.

The rest, as I shall relate, is history. After nearly 19 years at the Margaret Hague, he was recruited to SUNY-Downstate as an associate professor of obstetrics and gynecology, rose to full professor in 1958, and achieved emeritus status in 1979. I believe the two crowning achievements of the so-called Hellmann years at SUNY-Downstate were the recruitment and the retention of Leon Chesley, who served as the conscience of the department for a quarter of a century.

Ches' first marriage, to Elizabeth Rusch, lasted from 1934 to 1948. Two children resulted from that marriage: Joan Engelhaupt of Santa Monica, California, and the late Robert Chesley of New York City, whose untimely death in 1990 deprived the American theater of one of the most stimulating voices of his generation. Ches' second marriage, to Eleanor Brudnicki, lasted from 1949 until Eleanor's death in 1994. That marriage produced 3 children, whom Ches affectionately called his "second crop": Donald Chesley, of New York City, Susan MacLeod of Hillsboro, New Hampshire, and Kathy Chesley, of Mora, New Mexico. Ches had only 1 grandchild, Donald MacLeod of New Hampshire.

Dr. Chesley published more than 150 scientific papers, mostly on hypertension in pregnancy and gestational physiologic changes, and he published chapters in more than 20 books, including 3 editions of Williams Obstetrics. His list of publications stressed quality rather than quantity, and he assiduously resisted adding the name of any noncontributory, however politically expedient, to his papers or appending his own to the numerous papers he rewrote or edited for others unless he had done some of the research himself. His classic textbook, Hypertensive Disorders in Pregnancy, published in 1978, is universally recognized as a model of scholarship, with regard to both content and style.

In January 2000, his article entitled "The Remote Prognosis of Eclamptic Women: Sixth Periodic Report," orbitally published in 1976 by the American Journal of Obstetrics and Gynecology, was reproduced in the "Classic Pages" section of the same journal. It was accompanied by a brilliant editorial by Dr. Chesley, which appeared in print just weeks before his death, on the recognition of the long-term sequelae of eclampsia, in which he again argued convincingly that any studies of preeclampsia should be restricted to primiparas, unless the multiparas are analyzed separately. He was gratified to have seen the second edition to his textbook, which appeared quite recently under the editorial supervision of Marshall Lindheimer, James Roberts, and Gary Cunningham.

Ches belonged to at least a dozen obstetrical and gynecological societies, including the American Gynecological and Obstetrical Society, a unique honor for someone with a Ph.D. in zoology. His favorite scientific organization was the Society for Gynecologic Investigation, of which he was a founding member and later president, in 1962. Many of the fellows of that society acknowledge with gratitude the debt they owe Dr. Chesley for his encouragement of their academic careers.

A symposium in Ches' honor held at SUNY-Downstate in 1980 was attended by many colleagues from this country and abroad, including John Bonnar, Norman Gant, Marshall Lindheimer, Jack Prtichard, Malcolm Symonds, Ralph Wynn, and Frederick Zuspan. This was one of many occasions on which Dr. Chesley's unique role in the intellectual life of our discipline was affectionately acknowledged.

In a tribute of this brevity, it is impossible to catalogue Dr. Chesley's innumerable accomplishments, perhaps the most far-reaching of which was his incalculable influence on his scientific and intellectual successors. Following is a list of a few of the studies of which Ches himself was particularly proud:

  1. The first measurements of renal blood flow in pregnant women.
  2. The first measurements of "extracellular fluid" in pregnancy.
  3. The first recognition of the specific depression in the renal clearance of urate in preeclampsia.
  4. The first systematic study of the familiar factor in preeclampsia (work done in conjunction with Desmond Cooper of Sydney, Australia) suggesting the role of a single recessive gene.
  5. A follow-up study of 270 eclamptic women, unique because it consisted of repeated examinations of the same subjects over the course of 45 years, with 99% of the women traced.
  6. An almost equally impressive follow-up study of more than 350 women seen with rheumatic cardiac disease in pregnancy from 1931 to 1943.

Although Ches was known to his myriad admirers as an uncompromising authority on the hypertensive disorders of pregnancy, his accomplishments were not limited to science. He was a widely read scholar of history, geography, and politics. In fact, his encyclopedic interests extended to most intellectual and philosophic fields. He often suggested that the two greatest ideas in western civilization were Christianity and communism, and he ironically lamented that neither had ever been tried. His intolerance of bigotry and hypocrisy was evident to all guilty of those faults.

His favorite entertainment was grand opera, which he attended regularly from 1932 until a brainstem infarct destroyed his hearing. During his last few years, he communicated with his friends by means of typed messages. Not speaking was not a serious loss for the taciturn Ches, but the inability to listen to others brought him great pain. To paraphrase Plutarch, "I scarce ever met with any man who knew more and spoke less." Although he had no formal training in music or opera, his opinions of the many performances we attended together were invariably perceptive and reliable.

We have all known many important men, and even a few good men, but today we are paying tribute to a great man who, to borrow from "Junius," detested equally the pageantry of a king and the supercilious hypocrisy of a bishop.

Ches, from all the members of AGOS, "Ave atque vale."

Submitted by Ralph M. Wynn, M.D.

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