Dr. C. Thomas Caskey, medical center visionary who established a genetics program at Baylor College of Medicine, dies at 83

Dr. C. Thomas Caskey, a pioneering Houston researcher who shed light on the mysteries of the human genome and built the genetics program at Baylor College of Medicine, died Thursday. He was 83 years old.

Caskey became known for his intellectual generosity and bold ideas when he moved to Baylor College of Medicine in 1971 and founded the Molecular Genetics Institute, now the Department of Molecular and Human Genetics. He left college in 1994 but returned as a teacher in 2011 to continue his work.

Caskey had recently suffered a stroke and died with his 62-year-old wife, Peggy Pearce Caskey, by his side. His colleagues at Baylor praised his ability to pursue groundbreaking research while encouraging the diverse and skilled group of scientists he recruited.

“He was one of the strongest, most positive and dynamic personalities,” said Dr. Brendan Lee, director of the Department of Molecular and Human Genetics. “That’s the other aspect that he permeated in terms of our department, which is, ‘Think big ideas and just do it.’ In some ways it was very Texas.

Born in Lancaster, SC, in 1938, Caskey attended the University of South Carolina and later Duke University Medical School. He began his career as a research associate at the National Institutes of Health, where under the guidance of Nobel laureate Marshall Nirenberg, he revealed that the genetic code for amino acids is universal among all species.

When he started the genetics program at Baylor, he expanded the research by recruiting scientists from around the world who studied a wide range of species, including mice and fruit flies.

Among his own research achievements, Caskey in the 1980s developed a method of identifying human DNA that has become a widely accepted standard for forensic analysis worldwide.

In the 1990s he revealed the genetic basis of inherited diseases such as myotonic dystrophy, which causes progressive muscle weakness. Through this work, he clarified the genetic phenomenon of anticipation, in which genetic conditions become more severe or appear at an earlier age in successive generations.

“Technology today makes identifying genetic mutations quite simple,” Lee said. “But he was doing it at a time when it was like climbing Everest.”

Caskey left Baylor in 1994 to become senior vice president of human genetics and vaccine discovery at Merck Research Laboratories. His career took him back to Texas in 2006, when he headed up the Brown Foundation Institute of Molecular Medicine at the University of Texas Health Science Center in Houston, before returning to Baylor.

Dr. Huda Zoghbi, director of the Jan and Dan Duncan Neurological Research Institute at Texas Children’s Hospital, credited Caskey for inspiring her co-discovery of the gene responsible for spinocerebellar ataxia type 1, a crippling neurological disease. She sought his advice when she started running her own lab.

“I loved having the chance to brainstorm with him and talk about what seems scientifically impossible,” she said. “You don’t talk about little things. You talk about big ideas, and I’m gonna miss it.

Caskey’s numerous academic awards include the William Allan Award from the American Society of Human Genetics in 2021 and the William G. Anlyan, MD, Lifetime Achievement Award from the Duke University Medical Alumni Association in 2015.

In addition to Caskey’s wife, he is survived by his two children, Clifton and Caroline Caskey; three grandchildren; his brother, John Caskey; and his unrelated “son” Steve Marinier.

The family is planning a small private service and will host a celebration of life at a later date.

julian.gill@chron.com

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