Neuropathologist Clark’s career reflects the influence of an early mentor

Neuropathologist Brent Clark with Macalester College students

As a high-school student in Truman, a small farming town in south-central Minnesota, Brent Clark was drawn to biological science and chemistry.  His guidance counselor told him about a Minnesota Heart Foundation program that supported students to do research during the summer.  He was awarded a summer scholarship through the program and chose to work at the Mayo Clinic over the University because he had an uncle who lived near Rochester and worked in the city.  At Mayo his mentor was the legendary cardiovascular pathologist Jack Titus.

Clark could not have been more fortunate.  Titus instilled in Clark a searching interest in pathology and brought him back to his laboratory for successive summers during his undergraduate years attending Macalester College in St. Paul.  “Interestingly, we didn’t really work on heart pathology,” Clark said.  “He was also running the cytogenetics lab at the time, so I actually worked in cytogenetics at a time when it was quite primitive—basically just lining up chromosomes by size and shape.  Chromosome banding hadn’t even been invented at that point.  But it piqued my interest in medicine and also in pathology.”

Upon graduating from Macalester, Clark applied to the MD/PhD program at Washington University in St. Louis, one of the few such programs in the country at the time.  He did so at the urging of his mentor Titus, who got his MD from Wash U.  “He encouraged me to apply, and I assume he wrote me a very good letter as well,” Clark said.  With his acceptance into the program, Clark’s innate scientific curiosity was unleashed for a half-century run.  He became LMP professor emeritus on Oct. 30.

At Washington University, Clark earned his MD and PhD in experimental pathology and completed residencies in anatomic pathology and neuropathology.  After several years at Washington University and later at Southern Illinois University in Springfield, Illinois he joined LMP in 1990.  For three decades Clark has been devoted to neuropathology clinical service, teaching medical students, and conducting brain pathology research.  He was director of neuropathology services at the University of Minnesota Medical Center, Fairview, and a consulting neuropathologist at Hennepin County Medical Center and the Minneapolis VA Health Care System. Clark had a long and successful interaction with area hospitals as head of LMP’s neuropathology outreach program, examining brains from autopsies and analyzing surgical biopsies and resections.

Numerous University medical and allied health profession students benefited from Clark’s commitment to teaching.  He began teaching pathology to second-year medical students in the fall of 1990 after joining the LMP faculty.  Subsequently, he was course director for neuropathology and collaborated with University psychiatry professor Kaz Nelson in directing “Human Health & Disease – Neurology, Psychiatry, Otolaryngology, & Ophthalmology,” a block course that provides students with an introduction to the pathophysiology and pathology related to those disciplines.  Clark also directed a practical introduction to neuropathology as part of the Medical School’s Clerkship program for third- and fourth-year students.  Clerkship students spend time on clinical service much as residents do.  “That’s been most interesting,” Clark said.  “We probably get six to eight students a year, most of whom are interested in going into pathology or into the clinical neurosciences – neurology, neurosurgery, occasionally psychiatry.”

After an initial research interest in the blood-brain barrier and diseases of myelin, Clark concentrated his efforts in the neuropathological study of degenerative neurological diseases, notably the central nervous system effects of myotonic dystrophy and hereditary cerebellar ataxias.  He formed a decades-long and fruitful collaboration with LMP professor Harry Orr in pioneering studies of spinocerebellar ataxia type 1 (SCA1), an inherited disease characterized by progressive degeneration of the cerebellum and brainstem leading to loss of motor control and early death.

Clark said he has always been awed by the human brain.  “Every time I examine a brain it’s amazing to me.  I’ve examined thousands of them but each one seems very interesting and new.  It’s amazing to think how much damage the brain can sometimes undergo and people will still be relatively functioning and sometimes how little damage there can be and how dysfunctional [people] can be.  It’s a never-ending fascination.  Every case had something new to offer.”

Watch Clark’s “Legends in Pathology” video at this link.

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