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Obituary—Walter Muir, University of Edinburgh

Editor’s note: The following obituary honors Walter Muir, known particularly for his role in the discovery of the DISC1 locus. He was Professor of Developmental Psychiatry at the University of Edinburgh and Consultant Psychiatrist in Learning Disability at NHS Lothian. Born 13 February 1958 in Edinburgh, he died 1 September 2009 in Fife at age 51. The obituary, written for The Scotsman newspaper, was submitted by David St. Clair, University of Aberdeen, and Douglas Blackwood, University of Edinburgh.



Walter Muir

23 October 2009. The sudden and unexpected death of Walter Muir deprives the world of an outstanding clinician scientist who devoted his career to helping people with mental illness and trying to understand the underlying causes of the disorders he encountered in his clinical practice. Walter trained in Edinburgh. After qualifying in Medicine he decided on a career that allowed him to continue his interest in neuroscience and the biological basis of behavior, much of it developed in the course of

an intercalated degree in pharmacology from which he graduated with first class honors in 1980.

He joined the Royal Edinburgh Hospital Rotational Training Scheme in Psychiatry in 1983 just around the time when molecular genetic approaches to complex disorders including schizophrenia and bipolar disorder were becoming feasible as a result of advances in sequencing technology and the increasing availability of polymorphic DNA markers for use in mapping genes. Walter quickly became involved in DNA studies in families. His appreciation of the devastating effects of the illnesses and his belief that these problems were tractable by improved understanding of neurobiology gained him the support and cooperation of patients and their families who volunteered to take part in genetic studies.

Walter early recognized the potential value of naturally occurring chromosomal abnormalities that are periodically observed in psychiatric patients and which can signpost the exact location of a disease-related faulty gene. To further this novel approach, he took the opportunity provided by the late Professor John Evans at the MRC Human Genetics Unit in Edinburgh to combine clinical work with laboratory training in DNA analysis and chromosome analysis. He was awarded a prestigious MRC Clinician Scientists Fellowship, and from a large database of chromosomal abnormalities previously established in the MRC Unit, identified several key families with psychiatric illness where chromosomal abnormalities were the most likely cause of psychiatric illness. This was an immensely productive time, and his combination of clinical and laboratory skills underpinned the work that has led to the discovery of several genes involved in schizophrenia and bipolar disorder, including the gene DISC1, one of the most important genes for neuropsychiatric disorders identified to date; other important genes include GRIK4, NPAS3, PDE4B, and ABCA13.

Walter was fully aware through his extensive clinical work of the limitations in psychiatry of symptom-based diagnoses. Families taking part in DNA studies were asked to take part in studies of brain waves and eye movements. Many seminal papers were published that sought to determine if physiological tests could clarify the boundaries of major psychotic disorders. These studies also allowed him to combine neuroscience with his long-term interest in physics and electronics. Indeed, he was awarded an Amateur Radio License at the early age of 19, was a member of the Radio Society of Great Britain, and remained an active “radio ham” whenever time permitted.

It was natural for Walter, when becoming an NHS consultant psychiatrist, to specialize in the psychiatry of learning disability, a branch of medicine and psychiatry that at the time was and remains a neglected specialty in research, particularly so for the very disabled group of patients with both learning disability and major mental illness that became Walter’s particular area of interest. It was to his credit that he quickly established a group of researchers within the specialty involved in a range of studies from the detailed analysis of complex chromosome rearrangements in individual patients, to participation in international multicenter collaborations that have recently identified genetic risk factors in schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, and depression by genomewide association analyses. As Training Programme Director for the Psychiatry of Learning Disability in SE Scotland, he greatly encouraged and motivated trainees into the specialty and he also spent time as advisor and trustee on the work of charities, including the Down’s Syndrome Association and Autism Speaks, in support of patients and their families. With a practical down-to-earth approach to complex clinical situations and the ability to make a strong rapport with patients, he consistently supported and gained the affection of many families coping with the long-term effects of illness.

His contributions to psychiatric genetics are all the more remarkable, as he lived with a severe progressive hearing impairment, and although he was an able chairman and member of committees, speaking at conferences was usually an insurmountable challenge. Nevertheless, he was a skilled and enthusiastic pianist and was widely read, with a vast collection of books, particularly in relation to the Borders, a place he loved. He was great company, always up-to-date with the latest happenings in poetry, theater, and cinema, and an inspiration to all around him. His sudden death at age 51, following an accident, was only a few months after he was awarded DSc and appointed to a personal Chair in Developmental Psychiatry in Edinburgh University. He was greatly looking forward to the next stage of finding ways to apply a growing knowledge of genetic causes of psychiatric illness to improve the lives of patients and their relatives. He leaves a son Alisdair and a daughter Catherine, who are both at university.—David St. Clair.

 
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