This San Francisco Chronicle obituary sets the stage well for considering the life and passing of a prominent California scientist:
Dr. Charles Epstein was one of the world's leading genetics scientists, and his research led to groundbreaking understandings of Down syndrome, but every bit as dear to his heart was his love of playing the cello.
Then a mailed explosive from the anti-technology killer known as the Unabomber blew out both eardrums and parts of his hands in 1993. That's when he showed, as much as he had through his dogged medical research, just how deep his strength and resiliency ran.
According to the New York Times, Epstein was a pioneer in the field of medical genetics, conducting extensive research on Down Syndrome in particular.
A medical doctor, Dr. Epstein (pronounced EP-styne) was widely credited with helping to make medical genetics — an extremely new field when he began his career — an accredited medical subspecialty. At his death he was emeritus professor of pediatrics at the University of California, San Francisco, where he had taught for more than 40 years.
Dr. Epstein was best known for his work on Down syndrome, a chromosomal condition that affects roughly 1 in 700 newborns. The genetic abnormality that causes Down syndrome — an extra copy of Chromosome 21 — was first identified in 1959 by the French geneticist Jérôme Lejeune.
Dr. Epstein and his associates were interested in learning specifically what it was about having the extra chromosome that resulted in the constellation of anomalies associated with Down syndrome. Besides cognitive impairment, these can include heart and respiratory problems as well as changes in the brain over time that resemble those in patients with Alzheimer’s disease.
In work begun in the 1970s, Dr. Epstein posited that the anomalies were caused by an overabundance of proteins generated by the extra chromosome. His hypothesis was later borne out by his own laboratory research and that of others.
* * *
Dr. Epstein’s other work included research on Alzheimer’s disease and Werner syndrome, which results in premature aging.
But his life took a distressing turn eighteen years ago. According to the Los Angeles Times:
On a Tuesday morning in June 1993, Epstein opened a padded brown envelope about the size of a videocassette that had come in the mail. The envelope exploded, destroying three of his fingers, breaking his arm and burning his hand, face and abdomen. The blast blew out kitchen windows and screens and ripped a table top off its legs.
Epstein later said that if the package had been pointed in a slightly different direction, the bomb would have killed him.
The researcher did not practice abortion or genetic engineering and his work was not controversial. He had never heard of the Unabomber until the package arrived. But he had recently been the subject of a New York Times article, just like computer scientist David Gelernter of Yale University, who received a similar bomb three days later.
The Unabomber subsequently taunted Epstein in another letter for not being smart enough to know better than to open a package from someone he didn't know.
Epstein gave no rhetorical quarter to Theodore Kaczynski, later convicted for this and many other attacks:
In a plea deal that avoided a trial that could have resulted in the death penalty, Kaczynski admitted responsibility for mailing 16 bombs that killed three people and injured 29 others, and was sentenced to life in prison.
Epstein called Kaczynski a coward: "He himself, who was willing to sentence other people to death, was afraid to die himself. He wasn't willing to die for his ideas. He was willing for me to die for them."
Fortunately, he rose to the physical challenge his injuries presented. Per the Chronicle:
Dr. Epstein underwent pioneering surgery to have new eardrums installed, got a nerve transplant so he could raise his wrist and spent more than a year retraining his damaged hands to again cradle his favorite instrument. He even figured out how to pluck strings with the little finger of his right hand, which was injured the most.
"He showed bravery, determination and skill," his wife, Dr. Lois B. Epstein, recalled last week. "My husband was always a remarkable man."