As a kid and teenager Karen was Heide Thorsen of Wilson Point. She is not technically a RowaytonKid although she has many qualifications to be called a RowaytonKid. She graduated from Thomas School on Bluff Avenue just like other RowaytonKids (listed above) – Judy, Connie, Margo, Laurie, and Diane Wilkinson - and she frequently visited our house down the road. Also her father, Wallace, would occassionally give the sermon at the Methodist church on the corner of Pennoyer Street and Rowayton Avenue.
After graduating from Thomas School in 1964 she went on to Vassar where, as most Vassar girls do, she dropped her childhood name and adopted her first name “Karen.” She’s had a storied career as a writer, producer and director of documentaries the Public Broadcasting TV, the History Channel, and others. Her biography is HERE at the American Masters website. Her most notable accomplishment is “The Price of the Ticket” on the life and struggle of James Baldwin which was released in 1989. This work has been restored and will be re-released as an American Masters feature at 9PM, Friday, August 23rd. The timing of this re-release marks 25 years after Baldwin’s death, 50 years after the historic March on Washington, and publication of Baldwin’s bestselling essay The Fire Next Time. I encourage all to watch this masterpiece about an important author and civil rights crusader.
I recall Heide mentioning her admiration for James Baldwin back in 1964; so she had read Baldwin probably while she was at Thomas School. That was a time when both of us were seeded with notions of where we were going in life. Her success was far more predictable than mine because of her intelligence and charm. My career and future was influenced greatly by her father. Wally and I played tennis that summer at Norman Cousins’ house in New Canaan. I recall Norman Cousins complaining about his tennis elbow when we asked if he wanted to play. It turned out that he was in the early stages of ankylosing spondylitis which led him into a new career in medicine.
Wally was a visionary who shared his excitement with me about the emergence of modern genetics with the cracking of the genetic code by Marshall Nurenberg at the National Institutes of Health (NIH). This story had just been written up in Life Magazine. Funny thing, but two years later in September 1966 I began my Ph.D. work investigating the mechanism of gene expression in a renowed lab at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine.
Wally was also enamored with the powers of vitamin C as a cure-all. Seventeen years later in September 1981, I found myself standing in front of Linus Pauling trying to explain how the mutation in the human beta-actin gene, which I had discovered at NIH, caused cancer. He smiled and interrupted me to ask if I knew who discovered actin, the most highly conserved protein in our evolution. I knew that it was Albert Szent-Györgyi who Pauling admired. Szent-Györgyi also discovered vitamin C and received the Nobel Prize for that in 1937. We all took vitamin C at the Pauling Institute because every year Hoffmann-La Roche would send us a large package of uncut C which we would divide up. At the time word had it that everyone at Harvard was taking it so why not? I considered C a Linus Pauling tax that gave us all better health in some mysterious way, and funding to boot.
Pauling had become an advocate of vitamin C, after Norman Cousins, and Wally. He had also won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1954 and the Nobel Peace Prize in 1962. Pauling would also have been able to understand the double helical structure of DNA had he been able to leave the country to visit Rosalind Franklin; but his passport had been revoked because of McCarthyism.
While some consider Pauling’s advocacy of vitamin C quackery, I saw him almost single-handedly force NIH to fund research on human nutrition which he considered to be the biggest health problem worldwide – not the other diseases we all know about. Today, the Linus Pauling Institute is thriving at Oregon State as a prestigious and highly funded center for human nutrition research. Back in 1981 Pauling and I managed to float his fledgling institute, then in Palo Alto CA, with our grants from the National Cancer Intitute and, of course, a few important contributors. My Bio is HERE.
So the story that started in the early 1960s in an around Rowayton led to some very satisfying results thanks to Heide’s father, Wally Thorsen.