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Class Notes

Lock Conley looks back and blushes

Lock Conley

The patient, an Italian tomato farmer from New Jersey, had blood that baffled the young resident Richard Ross. When a sample was sent to the chemistry lab, the red cells settled out rapidly and the plasma clotted almost instantaneously. It was 1947, and Ross, a future dean of the School of Medicine, took the blood to the one man he thought could untangle the mystery: C. Lockard Conley, the newly appointed head of the nascent hematology division.

“I said, ‘What’s the matter with this blood?’” recounts Ross. “And he was delighted that I’d made this observation, patted me on the back enthusiastically, and congratulated me on bringing this to his attention. He was inspired by my observation and could transmit that fire to others.”

Conley’s subsequent research showed that the patient’s blood contained a potent anticoagulant—and when it later became clear the patient had lupus, Conley’s findings defined the existence of lupus anticoagulants, antibodies linked to thromboses, miscarriages and other conditions.

With typical modesty, Conley (University Distinguished Professor Emeritus of Medicine) calls the lupus anticoagulant discovery “quite fortuitous”— just as he characterizes his entire career as “wholly unplanned,” the result of “unexpected circumstances.” Yet for fellows, residents, interns and medical students spanning five decades, the conclusion is unqualified and unanimous: Conley is the most important mentor they ever had.

Sitting in his airy fifth-floor apartment overlooking a suburban Baltimore retirement community, Lock Conley, now 91, smiles slightly and characteristically turns the accolades around. “One of my greatest satisfactions is that I had all these very good people who came to work with me and went on and did great things themselves,” he says.
Yet Conley’s former fellows and students—a startling number of whom have become pillars of modern medicine (university chancellors, medical department chairs, heads of hematology divisions)—insist their achievements can be traced directly to Conley.

Perhaps the most distinguished of these acolytes is Sir David Weatherall, who was just plain David when, as a freshly minted physician from the University of Liverpool, he signed on under Conley for his 1963–65 fellowship. In time, Weatherall came to occupy Sir William Osler’s old chair as Regius Professor of Medicine at Oxford, founded Oxford’s Weatherall Institute for Molecular Medicine, and is now chancellor of Keele University in Staffordshire. In the foreword to a 2002 book co-edited with three other former Conley fellows—Craig Kitchens, ’73–75; Barbara Alving, ’76; and Craig Kessler, ’78—and dedicated to Conley, Sir David wrote: “Of all the remarkable physicians with whom I have had the privilege of associating over the years, I can think of no one who had more influence on the way I came to think about patient care and medical research.”

Closer to home, David Hellmann ’77, now vice dean of the School of Medicine at Johns Hopkins Bayview and head of its Department of Medicine, recalls becoming awe-struck by Conley’s knowledge. “I have a framed picture of Dr. Conley in my office to remind me every day of what an impact a great doctor and teacher can have on the lives of patients and students,” he says.

As a researcher, Conley conducted landmark inquiries into blood coagulation, blood platelets, hemorrhagic diseases and hemoglobins, including sickle cell anemia. He made crucial contributions to developing therapy for vitamin B12 deficiency.

As a clinician, Hellmann recalls Conley was “legendary for maintaining long follow-up of his patients.”

As a teacher, Conley had “this amazing ability to give a brief sermonette on almost anything—and make it both clear and memorable to the listener,” recalls close friend Richard Johns ’48. Those skills have been permanently enshrined via the American College of Physicians’ C. Lockard Conley, M.D. Award for Excellence in Medical Resident Education.

When Conley retired in 1980, an entire issue of The Johns Hopkins Medical Journal was dedicated to him—and featured nothing but articles written by his former students. Twenty-six years later, Conley still seems mystified by his legacy. “All of these people came to work with me,” he says, “and I don’t know why they did.”

Hellmann can provide a clue: “When I was a medical student, one of the senior residents I most admired told me, Dr. Conley is the smartest doctor at Hopkins.”

Hellmann says he repeatedly saw Conley rapidly make a correct diagnosis in a patient whose problems had stumped physicians elsewhere. Once, a man “who had been seen in multiple hospitals by multiple doctors” came to Hellman, plagued by painful, blue fingers. The previous diagnosis: vasculitis; the ineffective remedy: massive doses of morphine.

Hellmann consulted Conley, who examined the patient’s peripheral blood smear and swiftly diagnosed a rare condition: polycythemia, not vasculitis. The effective remedy: a daily aspirin.

Conley says his fellows became “a very delightful” surrogate family to him and his wife of 61 years, Edith (who died in 2004), and he hears from them often. “Last week I had a telephone call from Victor Marder in California, who worked with me as a medical student fellow in the 1950s. He said he’d written a book that he’s dedicating to me.”

Conley has two daughters—one a physician in Amherst, Mass.; the other a horticulturist in Maryland—two grandchildren and one great-grandchild. Recently slowed by Parkinson’s disease, he spends most of his time in his retirement community. “Of course, now I’m in a different society,” he says. “There are no doctors here. But I have a good many friends, some lovely people.”

Neil A. Grauer

 Taming the Beast
 Anatomy of a Surgical Dilemma
 Circling the Dome
 Medical Rounds
 Annals of Hopkins
Class Notes
 Match Day 2006
 Rounding Through the Ages
 Lock Conley Looks Back and Blushes
Johns Hopkins Medicine

© The Johns Hopkins University 2006