Celebrating Doctor Markesbery: Memories of a Doctor, Researcher, and Friend

By Kimberly Beauchamp

In 1985, revered Alzheimer’s researcher Dr. William Markesbery stopped by the Best Friends Adult Day Center in Kentucky for a friendly visit. When he observed the positive energy, engaging activities, and compassionate culture of care at the center, he remarked, “This may be the treatment for dementia.” These words of endorsement came from a man who made enormous contributions to the field of Alzheimer’s research and treatment, a professor, researcher, and doctor with both a sharp, scientific mind and a gentle, down-to-earth demeanor who would become a valued spokesperson for the Best Friends Approach to Alzheimer’s care.

This September, Dr. Markesbery’s birthday month, we pay tribute to a native Kentuckian who spent many of his years researching cures and preventions for Alzheimer’s disease while working to improve the overall well-being of older adults. The late Dr. Markesbery, who passed away on January 30th, 2010 at age 77, served as director of the Sanders-Brown Center on Aging at the University of Kentucky for thirty years, a center dedicated to supporting healthy aging at the forefront of research on the preventions, causes, and early diagnosis of diseases causing dementia. He also developed one of the first ten Alzheimer’s Disease Research Centers, conducting numerous studies on the neuropathology of this disease.

The ever-conscientious, well-dressed Dr. Markesbery was serious about his work, often putting in eighteen-hour days, tirelessly obtaining grants and funding for his research efforts. Over his scientific and medical career, he published more than 410 peer-reviewed papers, won multiple awards (The Irving H. Shaw Award for Distinguished Service in the Field of Health Care, the Khachaturian Award from the National Alzheimer’s Association, the Award for Meritorious Contributions to Neuropathology) and made groundbreaking discoveries about how Alzheimer’s disease operates and progresses in the brain (http://www.alzforum.org/news/community-news/remembering-william-r-markesbery). Among his most famous research contributions, he published the first of several studies disproving the once-popular theory that Alzheimer’s disease is caused by an accumulation of toxic chemicals, like aluminum. Dr. Markesbery also helped craft the Consensus Recommendations for the Postmortem Diagnosis of AD in 1997.

Yet even as he sought out advanced medical and biochemical knowledge about Alzheimer’s disease, this solemn-minded, dedicated researcher also appreciated the simpler wisdom of compassion and kindness in dementia care. He could see the value of laughter, positive social interaction, and lively activity in the daily routines of people with dementia—the day that he visited the Best Friends Adult Day Center, Dr. Markesbery surprised staff when he danced with the clients, letting loose and grooving to the music. Later, he helped serve afternoon ice cream cones and sang songs with his new friends. Dr. Markesbery believed in a treatment that could reach beyond the limitations of medicine—an everyday dose of companionship. Colleagues remember him as a man who knew how to engage with his patients and put them at ease, chatting about their hobbies and histories, learning bits and pieces of their life stories. He always directly addressed his patients in conversation, no matter their cognitive state or stage of dementia (Danner and Thomason, http://www.mc.uky.edu/preadvise/WRM_memoriams/Danner-Thomsason_Neuromolecular.pdf.)

Over the years, as the Best Friends Approach grew and developed out of the original model set forth by the Best Friends Adult Day Center, Dr. Markesbery would remain a steadfast supporter of the approach’s practices and principles. In the acknowledgments to their book The Best Friends Approach to Alzheimer’s Care, Bell and Troxel honor Dr. Markesbery for motivating them with his insistence that the best treatment for Alzheimer ’s disease is “loving care.”

Dr. Markesbery’s commitment to people with Alzheimer’s disease and dementia continued up to the very last moments of his life, even as he became ill—several colleagues recall finding him ‘hunched over” his microscope with an IV of antibiotics attached to his arm, diligently conducting his research (http://www.alzforum.org/news/community-news/remembering-william-r-markesbery.) His patients, colleagues, and friends will never forget his presence or his efforts to improve the lives of people with dementia–and early advocates for the Best Friends Approach will always remember his original words of support and encouragement all those years ago, the day Dr. Markesbery got up and danced.

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