Dr. Katherine Bick’s Journey as a Scientist

IMG_0635As part of the Capturing Collective Memories from Seniors Project, we have reconnected with folks who grew up in Clyde River and now live in other parts of Canada and the US. One of those is Katherine Livingstone Bick who attended Clyde River School from 1939-46 and went on to become a scientist working in the area of Alzheimer’s disease, even before it was recognized as a disease. Intrigued by her journey from her humble beginnings in a one-room school, I asked if she would share her story.

Katherine Bick, Ph.D.

My father was Spurgeon Arthur Livingstone (1989-1947), the eldest child of Archibald D. and Elizabeth Stewart. Grandpa Archie (1867-1930) died before I was born, but Mrs. Archie (1878-1974), my Grandma, was a major influence in my early years. Her parents were Isabelle (MacDonald) MacKinnon and Angus Stewart from Springton. My Grandma was an indomitable woman, way ahead of her time in her views of women’s roles. My mother was Flora Murray (1908-1990), the youngest daughter of Christy MacPhail of Meadowbank and William Murray of Scotch Settlement, New Brunswick. Grandpa Murray and the Clyde River Murray’s were cousins and visits were frequent. Our farm was originally the Fraser farm on the Baltic Road in Clyde River, between John Murray and Jim Livingstone. Everyone in the area was interconnected by marriage or birth. My roots there go back to at least the early 1800s.

When I attended Clyde River School from 1939-1946, it was one room with all 10 grades but usually not more than 25-30 pupils. I had two exceptional teachers, Christine MacNevin from Canoe Cove and Rita Cruwys, later Mrs. Allie MacLean, for my last two years. I never really followed the standard pattern, as these two women let me proceed at my own pace, allowing me to move on when I had mastered a topic and often letting me help other students.

My mother was very involved with my schooling and inspired me to love and enjoy learning. So while I spent less than ten years at Clyde River School, I did not skip any course material. When I took the Province-wide exams for entrance to Prince of Wales, I came third for the Island, certainly a tribute to my schooling.

As Clyde River was a small school, I remember many of my fellow students. Growing up in a farming community where I was literally related in one degree or another to everyone made for a very safe environment. Everyone had chores to do, so there was little time to get into too much trouble. I was terrible at sports as I was extremely myopic but no one realized it. I always sat in the front row, still do! But my ball playing skills were laughable. I never saw the ball until it was too late to swing at it!

Further to my results in the Prince of Wales entrance exams, I won a scholarship to pay my fees, and so my father was persuaded to allow me to go to town. Miss Lily Seaman, the registrar, was convinced that I could do the first two years at PWC in one year. It was an ambitious schedule that would have been okay but for the death of my father in February 1947 when I was 14.

Over the following summer, it was apparent that we would need to sell our farm. My mother went into nurses’ training in Charlottetown, and I returned for two years to graduate from Prince of Wales College (PWC) in 1949. While there, I was torn between my love of literature and history and biology. Professor Bigelow was the biology professor, and he was such a kind, gentle man who really encouraged me. I should not pick out just one professor, as the faculty knew and cared deeply about all the students. Looking back, I think that is my enduring memory. We were so nourished in many ways by our professors.

After graduation, I was recruited by Acadia alumnus Athol Roberts to attend Acadia University with a full scholarship. Of course, I went gladly, as without the scholarship, it simply would not have been doable without my working for some years to gather the money to attend. I loved the campus, so green and a small town where, once again, the faculty were involved in teaching and mentoring us. As my thank you, I have set up a modest fund at Acadia to provide the same gift to others.

Acadia Biology Department became a true home, as we were a small band of brothers and sisters who worked hard and had fun doing so. Dr. David McCallion was my honours thesis advisor for a project using histo-cytological techniques in a study of liver damage after x-irradiation. I learned the genetics of the time from Charles Bishop and was introduced to forest ecology and botany by Chalmers Smith. I graduated in 1951 and stayed on for a year to add to my honours research. Not convinced that I wanted to go on to a doctorate, I worked for two years with Robert Begg at the J.B. Collip Medical Research Lab at the University of Western Ontario.

Both he and McCallion encouraged me to go on and were instrumental in my receiving a full scholarship to Brown University in 1954 to get my Ph.D. I continued research on liver responses to injury by carbon tetrachloride, as they were influenced by diet.

I married a fellow graduate student in applied mathematics in 1955 and had my first child in 1956 and still finished my doctorate in three years. I am rather proud of that, I must say! My second child was born in 1958 just after we moved from Rhode Island to California.

In 1959, I joined the UCLA Department of Pathology working with W. Jann Brown who was applying the new microchemical assays pioneered by Oliver Lowry to work out the sequence of various lipids in the fetal mouse brain. That was really my introduction to the then almost unknown field of neurobiology, and I learned brain cutting and neuropathology as well.

From 1961-1966, I was on the faculty of California State University, Northridge, then primarily a teaching institution. In 1966, my husband had a great opportunity in the Washington D.C. area, so we moved back East where I had a four-year sabbatical as my boys were very involved and needed my presence.

In 1970, I went back as a laboratory instructor at Georgetown, soon became a full faculty member, mentored graduate students and taught both undergraduate and graduate courses.

In 1976, rather tired of academics and my attendant poverty, I moved to the Neurology Institute at the National Institutes of Health. There my task was to develop research programs focused on the degenerative diseases of the brain, I had thought I might work on developmental disorders, but there were excellent people doing that. So I tackled Multiple Sclerosis, Dementia, Huntington’s, and Parkinson’s, trying to encourage the best minds to think about these seemingly intractable issues. In this, I was lucky that Robert Katzman and Robert Terry had written persuasive editorials in the Archives of Neurology that same spring. This call to action convinced Donald Tower, Director of the Institute, that we needed to do something, and he picked me to get it started. Thus began a most fruitful and rewarding, both personally and professionally, partnership that changed my career.

We organized the first North American meeting on senile dementia and related disorders in 1977. From that came the seminal publication, Alzheimer’s Disease: Senile Dementia and Related Disorders, that declared that the most common form of dementia was Alzheimer’s and that it was not an inevitable consequence of ageing but a disease.

About the same time, the impetus for attention to Alzheimer’s came from the families who were living with loved ones in what has been called the never-ending funeral. Along with Katzman, whose mother-in-law was afflicted, and Jerome Stone, a successful Chicago businessman whose wife was ill and several others, we established the Alzheimer’s Disease and Related Disorders Association, now simply the Alzheimer’s Association.

Soon after, my dear mother who was then 70 was clearly becoming demented and paranoiac, and at her autopsy, we found that she had Lewy Body dementia. Several of her brothers and sisters from her large family also died with symptoms of dementia, occurring in late life.

I spent a happy and productive time (1976-1987) at the Neurology Institute and became Deputy Director in due course. My arm was twisted to take on the position of Deputy Director for Extramural Programs for the National Institute of Health (NIH). I did this reluctantly and I think I had some successes, e.g., more attention for pre-and post doctoral support for women and underserved minorities. But, in general, it was a politically fraught time and my Island spirit could not bend so easily with the winds. So, I resigned in 1990. And one week later, my second husband died very suddenly.

I then took a position for two years with a major dementia research institute in Florence, Italy, funded in part by an Italian Pharmaceutical firm and the National Research Council of Italy, working both in Italy and the US and with WHO (World Health Organization) sponsored epidemiological surveys on dementia. Subsequently, I became a scientific consultant to the Charles A. Dana Foundation and the Dana Alliance For Brain Research.

These days I am mostly retired, enjoying international travel adventures and my two great-grandchildren. I live in a retirement community in Chapel Hill North Carolina, quite near to my son and daughter-in-law and in close contact with all three of my grandchildren.

It’s pretty clear that my choice of universities was determined by the scholarships that I received which helped to pay for my education. And that would not have happened without the amazing support from mentors, some of whom I knew and others who knew only of me and my origins.

I have come ” home” to the Island almost every summer since the 1970s. For me, it is a renewing place, full of memories both happy and sad, but always renewing. No one who has grown up on a small mixed farm in pre-mechanized days can ever not be aware of the great web of life and the efforts that must be expended to simply make a living. We were never rich in worldly goods but beyond millionaires in quality of life, in family love and support.

My father was not a schooled man but he was educated, a progressive farmer who believed in crop rotation and who sadly did not live long enough to fulfill his dreams. My mother was very intelligent and worked diligently to foster a love of words and learning. In retrospect, I had a magical childhood and was supported by the whole community in their love and care.

Editor’s note: Dr. Bick (Katherine) will be taking along some photos to add to this story when she visits this July.

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  1. Jo-Ann MacPhail on February 16, 2015 at 9:17 am

    Thanks Vivian for bringing this lady’s story to us. Dr. Bick is a tribute to hard work and good genes. She deserves all the accolades that we can give her. She is a shining example of how small country schools with good teachers could foster learning and knowledge beyond the 3 R’s of the day and have their students be a match for more sophisticated educational centers’ students. I hope to see her and her pictures in July.
    Jo-Ann MacPhail

  2. Emily Bryant on February 16, 2015 at 10:35 am

    Wonderful story with its base in the small school and community of Clyde River and her early life on the peaceful Baltic Road. What valuable life work to study dementias, the cause for such distress for many families. This story is such a source of pride for Clyde River and especially for the Livingstone family. I sure hope her first cousin, Elizabeth Osborne, gets to read this article.

  3. Audrey (Frizzell) MacPhee on February 16, 2015 at 10:50 am

    What a wonderful story!! I remember Katherine as a young girl when she would visit George and Sadie (Livingstone) Hyde, our good neighbours in Cornwall. Once when I was going to Summerside to spend a few days with relatives, Katherine accompanied me on the “bus” as I would be a bit too young to travel alone. George drove us to the Bus Stop on Queen St, Henry Taylor bought each of us a banana and off we went. I do recall that Katherine was extremely brilliant and am thrilled to hear her life story. I would like to meet her if she visits PEI this summer. Her story is further proof of the excellent results of the little old one-room school with its modest amenities.

  4. murraymargaret on July 17, 2015 at 2:59 pm

    Thanks so much for publishing this wonderfully written story of our relative Katherine Bick. My grandfather Colin Murray and Katherine’s mother Flora were brother and sister. My father and mother are Howard and Florence Murray. I have often heard wonderful stories of Katherine through my dad and uncle.

    My husband Darryl van Herksen and myself, Margaret Murray live in Winnipeg, Manitoba. We would greatly appreciate if we can contact Katherine by email.

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