NIH Doctor Valued for His Insight: Legally Blind Researcher Astounds Colleagues as Head of Pathology Lab

Article excerpt

To colleagues and some of his superiors, Dr. Victor Ferrans is something of a mystery - a medical mystery. Or maybe "miracle" is the better word.

Legally blind for nearly a decade, he is chief of the pathology laboratory in the Heart, Lung and Blood Institute of Bethesda's National Institutes of Health, where he awes people with his ability to direct leading edge research in the field.

Pathology is the minute examination of the body's cells and tissues using microscopes. At NIH, the world's largest biomedical research institution, the methods used to accomplish this use machines costing hundreds of thousands of dollars and often have names longer than the diseases and functions they track in the ultimate hope of a cure.

If the mystery is how someone without sight can operate in a world of images, the miracle is Dr. Ferrans' mind, which is encyclopedic and "photographic." He apparently is able to remember nearly everything he hears and whatever he can see on a special magnifying machine that enhances images 30 times. In his youth, he could remember pages of text at a glance.

It is his "mind's eye" that causes comment - what pre-doctoral fellow Steven Archuleta, working under his direction, calls Dr. Ferrans' "amazing attention to detail and his ability not only to listen but to hear. He is a star to his fellow scientists and peers. It's amazing what his knowledge is and what it encompasses. I've heard no other office comes close to what he publishes."

Similarly amazed is Dr. Edward Korn, director of the division of intramural research at the Heart, Lung and Blood Institute, who was Dr. Ferrans' immediate supervisor when diabetes took his sight.

"He has great intellect and insight," Dr. Korn says. "I've never been able to figure out how he does it. He can somehow conceptualize in his mind."

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NIH is composed of 24 institutes, and a total of several hundred lab chefs, 15 of whom work in the Heart, Blood, and Lung Institute.

"We are using images to formulate concepts, to draw conclusions," is the way Dr. Ferrans describes his lab's work to a layman. "Not as an end in itself - this is not the National Gallery - but for asking `is this true or not true?'

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Publishing findings is also what researchers do. It's a fiercely competitive world in which complex, technical papers are judged by one's peers to be worthy or not. Dr. Ferrans' 43-page curriculum vitae includes a bibliography showing 564 papers published since 1960, the year he received his medical degree from Tulane University. He stayed on for advance degrees in anatomy while serving as a fellow in cardiology.

His name is on 12 published papers this year alone.

Dr. Ferrans, who has spent 30 years in NIH's pathology branch, carries on by training others. "I'm a relic," he jokes with characteristic humor. His staff includes secretary Jane Bell ("a saint," says a staff member), five postdoctoral fellows in experimental pathology, and several predoctoral fellows like Mr. Archuleta who are part of a program for college graduates from disadvantaged backgrounds. Mr. Archuleta, 31, a Mexican-American from California, none of whose family went to college, is being prepared for medical school in a program directed by Dr. …