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On April 15, 1976, a young physician wrote to me from England to inquire about the possibility of spending a year in the new Department of Human Genetics I had established at the Medical College of Virginia. We had no funding for postdoctoral positions at that time, but Robin Winter had trained at the Galton Laboratory, and was highly recommend by Gerald Corney and Harry Harris whom I both knew well, so we cobbled together support for a fellowship from research funds and welcomed him to join the department in Richmond. After seemingly interminable delays over his passport, Robin arrived with his wife Joan in June of 1977. He quickly became a favourite in the department and impressed me most by his insatiable desire to learn everything that was known about all aspects of human genetics, even though his bent was clearly towards clinical genetics. During his 18 months in the department, Robin made many friends and acquaintances—Fred Bieber, Cynthia Morton, Wendy Golden, Wendy Segreti, Lindon Eaves, Victor McKusick—some of whom remained close professional colleagues and collaborators throughout his life.
When the end of Robin’s first year approached, we tried very hard to persuade him to stay longer, but he was intent on getting back to England to start his career there. After a six month extension, during which he attended Victor McKusick’s Bar Harbor course, he returned to take a position at Northwick Park Hospital on the outskirts of London.
When Robin and Joan left Richmond, I asked Robin what his immediate goals were. He told me that he was thinking about developing a computer program to help clinicians to diagnose genetic syndromes. The number of recognisable syndromes, he said, was already getting out of hand, and it would surely get worse in the future. I remember being vaguely disappointed and thinking to myself that simply cataloguing recognised syndromes, no matter how profusely illustrated they were, was really an unworthy goal for such a promising young geneticist, especially when, by his own admission, there were so many new syndromes yet to be identified. His plans were similar, I thought, to Victor McKusick’s unaccountable obsession with nosology so clearly reflected in his burgeoning catalogue of Mendelian diseases. Although taking Victor’s first Bar Harbor course, as a medical resident wondering if one could make a living as a human geneticist, had been an important turning point in my career, I began to think that perhaps it had been a mistake to arrange for Robin to take the course.
When Robin’s London Dysmorphology Database was finally finished, we bought the system out of a sense of loyalty, but I seldom used it until one day I saw a young man in our clinic who had been referred because he had sustained fractures on multiple occasions while riding his motorcycle. I expected to find someone who either had osteogenesis imperfecta or was a pathological risk taker, and was astonished to encounter a normal looking teenager who was legally blind—a finding that the referring physician had failed to mention—with no vision in the right eye and almost none in the left. When I got back to the department I decided this would be the case that would confirm my prejudice that you couldn’t learn anything from the Database that you didn’t know already, so I entered “fractures and blindness” as search terms. Up popped the Osteoporosis – Pseudoglioma syndrome, and when I glanced up from the monitor, I could see Robin looking at me across the Atlantic with that expectant half smile that came across his lips when he had just told you a joke or one of his horrible puns and was waiting to see if you got it. Since then, every time I have used the system, I see him again in my mind’s eye.
Over the years, we got to see Robin at meetings, and I visited him at his home in England on at least two occasions. The last time I saw him was at the Genetics Congress in Vienna. At that time I was impressed again with his quiet confidence and the high esteem in which he was obviously held by his students and colleagues.
Many years ago when I decided to go into academic medicine, I asked my grandfather what he thought were the main rewards of an academic career. He had been a Greek and Latin scholar all of his professional life, was President of Soochow University in China for several years at the turn of the century, and was then in his late eighties. I was surprised, and somewhat put off and confused by his answer. He said he really didn’t even remember most of the hundreds of students he had taught, but the thought that he had made some small contribution to the later success of his three or four most gifted students is what made his whole life as a teacher seem worthwhile. Now of course, when I think of Robin, I know exactly what he meant.
Robin’s untimely death, after the brief span of 53 years that were allotted to him, teaches us all a poignant last lesson about genetic individuality: we will not see his like again, and as I think about him now, I seem to see the half smile again and hear him whisper “Do you get it?”