Remembering Herbert Kayden
The former Academy president jump-started a long-lasting focus on collaboration, setting the organization on a path to success.
Published January 10, 2016
Reflecting on the circumstances that first brought him to the New York Academy of Sciences, in 1949, Herbert Kayden, MD, once remarked, "I've often wondered what would have happened in my future if, instead of bouncing there (to the Academy), the ball had bounced once more and I had been in a different place." In the 65 years since that fateful day he first attended an Academy meeting, a time during which Kayden ultimately served as Academy Governor and President, it has become truly impossible to envision the organization without his influence—a fact that has become clearer since his passing this summer.
A native New Yorker, Kayden spent nearly all of his life in the city, leaving an indelible mark not only on the Academy, but on the students he taught at New York University School of Medicine and NYU Langone Medical Center, where he was professor emeritus of medicine and a renowned cardiologist and researcher, and on the art world, as an avid collector and generous benefactor.
A Start in the Sciences
The son of immigrant parents, Kayden attended New York City public schools, graduated from Columbia College in 1940 and earned his medical degree from New York University School of Medicine in 1943. Kayden served as a Naval physician in World War II, and his ship, the destroyer escort vessel USS Charles Lawrence, participated in the Battle of Okinawa.
Kayden returned to New York after the war, and was fortunate to secure one of the few coveted residency positions available to military physicians who needed to complete their training. His appointment, as chief resident on a joint research and clinical service on what is now called Roosevelt Island, gave Kayden his first exposure to a scientific research environment and placed him in the fortuitous position of seeing patients alongside medical researchers developing new treatments for disease. At that time, clinicians working in tandem with researchers were fairly unusual—the relationship between the two groups was far more competitive than collaborative, as Kayden remembers it.
He believed that the positive collaboration between the medical doctors and PhDs on his service—he called them "stellar investigators"—uniquely prepared him not only to embark on the research activities that were the hallmark of his career, but to understand the dynamics of the New York Academy of Sciences and to ultimately lead the organization.
Many of the researchers on Kayden's service during his residency were members of the Academy and encouraged him to join as well. He paid his $40 dues, and "before I knew it, I was plucked out and put on committees," Kayden recalls, describing how what began as a simple membership in one of the preeminent scientific societies in the country became something far greater.
Taking an Active Role
Almost immediately, Kayden became deeply involved in the Academy's esteemed conference committee, which was responsible for screening conference proposals and shaping the content, length, and panel of presenters for each event. As they are today, the Academy's conferences were then viewed as a venue to share breakthrough findings and explore emerging fields of inquiry, and the proceedings were reported in Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences.
The conference committee also counseled sponsors on raising funds to complement the modest budget allotted by the Academy—once again foreshadowing what would eventually become a pivotal part of Kayden's contributions to the Academy. With time and experience, he rose in rank, ultimately serving as conference committee Chair.
Outside of the Academy, Kayden had joined the faculty at New York University School of Medicine, where he split his time between clinical cardiology practice and a productive research agenda. His studies of arrhythmias in the 1950s led to new treatment protocols, and by 1960 he was devoting his professional efforts exclusively to research on lipoproteins.
Kayden had also married Gabrielle H. Reem, a fellow physician and researcher who spent a decade at Memorial Sloan Kettering hospital as a clinician before joining the New York University School of Medicine as professor of pharmacology, an appointment she held until her death in 2011.
Bridging the Gap
In the 1970s, 20 years after joining the Academy, Kayden was tested with the first of two major hurdles. Both were overcome due in large part to his leadership, and helped vault the Academy to what he believed was its rightful place at the forefront of the scientific community.
Kayden served as Academy Governor from 1972–1974, during which time the leadership of the Academy became increasingly fractious. On one side, Kayden recalled, were the administrators, whom many felt were out of touch with the pace and importance of discovery, and viewed the Academy more as a venue for camaraderie than scientific advancement. On the other side, the physicians and scientists of various disciplines, many of whom worked in New Jersey's burgeoning pharmaceutical industry.
Kayden's history of bridging the gap between medical doctors and researchers became a critical asset, as was his commitment to the Academy. He explained that he had two choices: "you either join them and change it from within, or you leave. I ended up doing the former." He became Academy president in 1977 and quickly made changes that were essential to the organization's survival.
During his tenure he installed new executive leadership, improved management of the Academy's finances, and, perhaps most importantly, created at atmosphere of partnership among the membership factions. A physician and bench scientist, Kayden was proof that there was no one path or degree that legitimized a scientist's work. "I was determined to turn the Academy into a neutral place where these two disparate groups could meet evenly and become friends, become colleagues, do collaborative work," he said. He succeeded, and in doing so, unified and increased the Academy's membership while opening new avenues for financial support.
Following his presidency, Kayden maintained strong involvement with the Academy, not only as a committee/board member, but also as editor of more than a dozen volumes of Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences. Many of Kayden's groundbreaking studies of lipoprotein disorders were published in Annals during the 1970s and '80s. In addition to his work on arrhythmias, Kayden identified the genes responsible for abnormal synthesis of Vitamin E, a deficiency of which causes a devastating constellation of neurological symptoms.
And while the 1990s was a period now viewed as one of the most challenging in the Academy's nearly 200-year history, current President & CEO Ellis Rubinstein credits Kayden with playing a seminal role in its revitalization, ensuring that the Academy continue its advancement of global scientific progress and inspiring new programs to guide the next generation of scientists and educators.
Rubinstein detailed a particularly memorable conversation with Kayden in 2005, as the Academy was planning to sell its historical home on the Upper East Side and move to new headquarters. "We spent over an hour discussing the challenges the Academy faced and what could be done with judicious investments of the capital coming from the building sale," Rubinstein said. They discussed a shared vision of the Academy's new facilities as a place where thousands of graduate students and postdocs from the city's research and academic medical centers could finally gather together. After that, in Rubinstein's words, "Herb became our most generous supporter."
Today, the room that houses Academy conferences and events that inspire students, educators, scientists, and leaders from around the globe is aptly named the Herbert and Gabrielle Reem Kayden Auditorium.
Their gifts to the Academy have allowed the organization to truly serve all points along the scientific pipeline, starting with the place where many young students first experience the thrill of discovery: the classroom. Kayden and Reem provided the seed funding for an extraordinary program that turned thousands of New York City public school science teachers into Academy members, providing tools, training, and connections to the scientific community. Kayden believed that "if you have a talented teacher and an eager student of almost any background, you could get wonderful results," and the program he helped initiate has brought the joy and power of science to thousands of teachers and students in some of New York's most underserved areas.
In 2009, the Academy named Kayden an Honorary Life Governor in recognition of his service and generosity.
In August 2014 the worlds of science and humanities lost a brilliant mind and dedicated champion. Toward the end of his life, Kayden said he often reflected on the enormity of today's problems, especially when it came to the lack of comprehensive science education and its impact on the future of humankind. But he was unguardedly optimistic, and grateful for the many opportunities that enriched his days. "You can look back and say, 'I wish I had more,' but I don't feel that way," he said.
"We had so much. We were so lucky, and so productive. When I go to my maker and they ask, 'What good have you done?' I'll be prepared."
Hallie Kapner is a journalist in New York City.
Photo: Herbert Kayden (right) with his wife Gabrielle Reem (left) at the Academy’s 2009 Annual Gala.