On Monday January 29th, 2007, the field of Otolaryngology lost one of its greatest educators and scientists with the death of Dr. Merle Lawrence (1915-2007). He was an eminent physiologist and a dedicated and beloved teacher who was at the center of a unique era in the establishment and growth of research in Otolaryngology.
Born in Remsen, New York, he received his education at Princeton University where he continued to his PhD in 1941 under the mentorship of Dr E. Glen Wever. The work of Dr Wever’s laboratory on vertebrate hearing inspired Dr Lawrence to turn this area of research into a lifelong study. A fellowship from the National Research Council led him to a postdoctoral post with Dr. Stacy Guild in the Otolaryngology Department at the Johns Hopkins University. It was there that the practical clinical problems concerning the middle and inner ear captured his interest through work with several prominent academic otolaryngologists including Drs Crowe and Lindsay.
During World War II he served as a Naval aviator of the US Naval Reserve, seeing action in the south Pacific, and returning from overseas as a highly decorated Lt. Cmdr. Subsequent assignments brought him to the School of Aviation Medicine in Pensacola and to the Bureau of Medicine and Surgery in Washington, D.C. He was briefly reassigned to active duty as a helicopter trainer during the Korean war.
In 1946, Merle joined Princeton University as an Assistant Professor and continued research collaborations with Dr Wever. He also was appointed as an Associate Researcher at the Lempert Institute of Otology in New York City (1946-52).
The late 1940s were golden years of middle ear physiology and middle ear reconstructive surgery. His early master-work published with Dr E.G. Wever in 1954, “Physiological Acoustics”, became essential reading for scientists and clinicians alike.
Dr Lawrence joined the Otolaryngology Department at the University of Michigan in 1952 upon invitation of Dr. Furstenberg, Chair of the Otolaryngology Department and Dean of the Medical School. He remained at Michigan for the rest of his career, founding the Kresge Hearing Research Institute in 1963. Under his leadership the Institute grew to become one of the largest and most influential centers for research on hearing world-wide. Acting as its first Director until retirement in 1983, Merle conducted research on inner physiology and shaped the careers of scientists and academic clinicians alike. Many of his trainees became department chairs, distinguished clinicians, or basic scientists. Education was just one, but a very unique, part of his remarkable career.
Among his fellow scientists, Merle’s name is intimately associated with inner ear physiology where, among other accomplishments, he characterized the cochlear microphonic, a receptor potential from sensory hair cells. He also pioneered the study of cochlear vascular physiology at the level of the capillaries. His insights into the underlying physiology impacted the the great advances in middle ear functional restoration and reconstruction, including the tympanoplasty and stapedectomy procedures
Merle was a creative scientist publishing extensively in research articles, chapters and books. His work has aptly been recognized by his peers with awards and honors among them the Service Award of the American Academy of Ophthalmology and Otolaryngology; Award of Merit of the Association for Research in Otolaryngology; Gold Medal Award of the American Otological Society; Distinguished Lifetime Achievement Award of the American Academy of Audiology; and many others.
In addition to being a dedicated husband, father of three, grandfather of five and great-grandfather of nine, Merle shared a life-long passion for swimming with his master gold-medallist swimmer and wife of 64 years, Bobbie.
Auditory science has lost one of its great and gracious scientists. Those of us who knew him so well and respected him as a friend and teacher will miss him dearly. The Lawrence family requests that remembrances to the memory of Merle Lawrence be made to the Merle Lawrence Research Fund, Kresge Hearing Research Institute, 1150 W. Medical Center Drive, Room 4605, Med Sci II, Ann Arbor MI 48109-5616.
[Submitted by Dr. Alfred Nuttall and Dr. Jochen Schacht. Photo courtesy of Dr. Yehoash Raphael]