Lock Conley looks back and blushes
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
“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
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
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
Neil A. Grauer