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A physician’s gift supports research on pre-eclampsia and prematurity

Yale Medicine Magazine, 2009 - Winter


Shortly before the end of World War II, a dying Albert S. McKern, M.A. ’13, M.D., turned to lawyers—fellow prisoners in a Japanese internment camp in Sumatra—and composed his will. His vacant land was to be developed, and property that he owned in Penang, Malaysia, where he had practiced as a physician and surgeon, was to be renovated and rented. Ten years after the death of his last child, the family’s holdings were to be sold and the money divided among three universities—Yale, where he had received a degree in engineering; the University of Sydney in Australia, where he had received his bachelor’s degree and studied theology; and the University of Edinburgh in Scotland, where he had received his medical degree.

Born in 1885 in Sydney, McKern came to Yale in September 1911 after deciding that theology was not for him because of his difficulties with public speaking. He earned a master’s degree from Yale, followed by a medical degree from Edinburgh in 1917. McKern then moved to Penang, where he built up both a successful medical practice and substantial real estate holdings. During the Japanese invasion in 1942, McKern was captured in Indonesia. He died three years later of dysentery.

Under the terms of McKern’s will, his family’s estate—$12 million—was to be used “for the sole and special purpose of establishing medical research scholarships for investigation into the causes, prevention and treatment of mental and physical pain and distress during pregnancy, labour and the puerperium.” McKern’s last surviving beneficiary died in December 1997, and the trust terminated a decade later.

Yale’s portion of McKern’s gift—about $4 million—will endow annual grants to those doing promising research on these issues. Charles J. Lockwood, M.D., the Anita O’Keefe Young Professor of Women’s Health and chair of obstetrics, gynecology and reproductive sciences, learned about the gift several years ago at a meeting with Andrew A. Calder, M.D., head of reproductive and developmental sciences at Edinburgh. Lockwood’s initial reaction was disbelief. “He’d had a few drinks and I thought he was exaggerating,” Lockwood said. Eventually the two began a discussion of joint work that might fulfill McKern’s dream.

“They have a very strong program,” he said of ob/gyn research at Edinburgh, citing the work done in prematurity and pre-eclampsia in particular.

Lockwood hopes to devise a joint strategy for using the money from the bequest during this academic year. Given McKern’s desire and the needs of the field, Lockwood sees prematurity research as an area of focus. “[Prematurity] is the leading cause of infant mortality in the United States, the leading cause of mental retardation, the leading cause of childhood blindness. It costs the U.S. economy around $28 billion a year in terms of health care-related resources. Preterm delivery is a national public health crisis.”

Funds from the bequest may also support a Yale-Sydney-Edinburgh scholarly exchange program and research on postpartum depression in the psychiatry department.