Charlotte McCutchen, MD
Critical to the success of a discipline are individuals who provide leadership.
Leadership can take on a variety of forms, a noteworthy example being as a mentor. Some mentors provide expertise in the form of scientific knowledge. Others support the investigator with resources such as laboratory space or personnel. Still others provide less tangible, but perhaps more important ingredients— e.g., lending a kind ear, offering a pat on the back, encouraging pursuit of one’s passions, advising on career decisions, and exhorting one to persevere in the face of life and professional challenges. Dr. Charlotte McCutchen was one of those rare mentors who provided so much to so many of us in the field of sleep neuroscience.
Dr. McCutchen was born in 1944 at the Camp LeJeune Marine Base in North Carolina. She graduated from the University of South Carolina in 1966 with a Bachelor’s Degree in Biology, and from the Medical College of Virginia with a degree in Medicine in 1970. She completed a neurology residency at Vanderbilt University, and served as a fellow in clinical neurophysiology and epilepsy at the University of Washington in Seattle. She then joined the faculty of the Department of Neurosciences at the University of California San Diego School Of Medicine as an Assistant Professor (1977-1984) and then moved to Georgetown University School of Medicine as an Associate Professor within the Department of Neurology (1984-1990). At both the San Diego and Washington DC Veteran’s Administration Medical Centers (VAMC), she directed the clinical neurophysiology and epilepsy programs, and also directed the sleep disorders program in the Washington DC VAMC. She then moved to the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke as a Health Scientist Administrator and Program Director, overseeing grants and contracts portfolios in sleep neuroscience and epilepsy for a decade (1990-2000) before moving back to California to pursue consulting in sleep research and neurophysiology. After battling neuromuscular disease for many years, Dr. McCutchen passed peacefully on September 11, 2012.
Charlotte’s contributions were recognized in her being awarded the National Institutes of Health Award of Merit “For outstanding contributions in coordinating research efforts as a member of the congressionally mandated National Commission on Sleep Disorders Research.” Her efforts extended well beyond this deserving attribution, in countless other domains, and for that the disciplines of sleep medicine and sleep neuroscience owe her heartfelt gratitude. By way of formal lectures and informal discussions, she lit a fire under her trainees and potential grantees to pursue work at the interface of sleep and neurological diseases. One of us (BAM) met Charlotte for the first time at a lecture that she delivered on sleep physiology to NIH neurophysiology fellows. Her examples of how epileptic activity was suppressed during REM sleep stoked our curiosity to ask why?... and inspired us to discover the answer.
Her devotion to advancing the field of sleep neuroscience was not limited to her love of epilepsy. Working tirelessly, she slowly built a large portfolio of sleep neurological disorder investigators within NINDS and became devoted to advancing fields of sleep neuroscience such as restless legs syndrome and narcolepsy. Charlotte was a true champion not only of sleep research but of Restless Legs Syndrome (RLS), interfacing on many occasions between those doing research in this area and the NIH. After taking over the responsibility of managing the Stanford Center for Narcolepsy program project grant, a grant started by Bill Dement in the 1980s, co-author EM stated that “he would never have been able to make it” as an independent investigator without her constant support and explanations on how NIH worked. It is thanks to that center grant that funding for the colony of narcoleptic dogs was maintained at Stanford against many odds, leading to the cause of narcolepsy.
Beyond specific disease states, Charlotte was also visionary. Co-author SS, who served as director of the EEG Laboratory at the NIH, recalls her desire to engage with researchers in the intramural program to further the areas of sleep and neurology. She spearheaded an NIH sponsored workshop in 1999 entitled Dopamine in Disorders of Sleep and Arousal. This spoke volumes to Charlotte’s appreciation for how common threads between the basic sciences and across disease states could foster novel fields of inquiry, and thereby accelerate the pace of translation of new knowledge into the practice of medicine.
Charlotte possessed a wonderful sense of humor and love of life. She was devoted to animals (survived by her 2 dogs, Ditsey and, Mitzy, and her cat, Harley) and to her gardening. She was a talented storyteller, and friends and colleagues loved to reminisce with her. She will be greatly missed. Her advice to many of us to “pass it forward” and to “leave a legacy” by mentoring the next generation of sleep researchers will endure.
1Vanderbilt University, Nashville, TN; 2Emory University, Atlanta, GA; 3Stanford University, Stanford, CA; 4National Institutes of Health, Intramural Branch, Bethesda, MD
Written by: Beth Malow, MD, MS1; David Rye, MD2; Emmanuel Mignot, MD, PhD3; Susumu Sato, MD4