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Dr. John Morley: Geriatric researcher and physician, accidental humorist

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, May 18, 2011 - In 1906, Auguste Deter, a patient of German psychiatrist and neuropathologist Alois Alzheimer, said in describing her illness: "I have lost myself." Since that time, scientists have been searching for a cure for Alzheimer's, the thief that robs individuals of their very essence.

There may be help on the horizon -- drugs that can stop the debilitating disease in its tracks. Dr. John Morley, an expert in geriatrics, is using the "c" word cautiously.

"I believe we may actually have a drug for a cure," said Morley. "Not for end-stage Alzheimer's, but we may be able to able to cure -- no, arrest -- the disease in the early stages by switching it off. It's one of the most exciting things we've done."

Morley and the team of Saint Louis University scientists and physicians with whom he collaborates on Alzheimer's research have identified a possible "off switch" in the form of a number of molecular compounds called antisenses.

The compound has been used effectively in mice, but there have been no clinical trials yet. That's where the caution comes in.

"Going from animal to human is a huge leap of faith," Morley says with a wry smile.

Morley, director of the division of geriatric medicine at Saint Louis University, smiles often, even when talking about a topic as serious as Alzheimer's.

"Dr. Morley is a very lived-in kind of person; he always looks a bit rumpled," laughed Carolyn Philpot, a geriatric nurse practitioner at Saint Louis University who has worked with Morley for more than a decade. "He was on TV recently and I just wanted to go through the camera and straighten his tie, turn his collar down and comb his hair a bit."

Sometimes, Philpot says, he permits a bit of fixing up. But his haphazard appearance belies a laser focus on issues of life and death.

"He has a drive and a motivation that I would say outranks anybody's I've ever met."

Coming to America

John Edward Morley, 64, was the late-in-life only child of South African parents. His mother was a teacher, his father a serial entrepreneur.

"He ran away from home when he was 12," Morley said. "He was extraordinarily bright, but he was a gambler who went bankrupt often."

Morley grew up during the age of apartheid, a system he found intolerable.

"I left because of political disagreements," he says without a hint of rancor. "I didn't agree with anything South Africa did. I have never returned."

Before leaving, he served on the South African police force and as a liaison to the CIA.

"It taught me an awful lot about the government. Somewhere along the line, I changed and became a protester. The police were not pleased, so I left.

"Maybe my commitment was more to myself than the world. Maybe I could have helped change things had I stayed," Morley mused.

He received his medical degree from the University of Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, South Africa, in 1972. After completing his internal medicine residency in South Africa he came to the United States for a fellowship in endocrinology at UCLA.

He subsequently became a staff endocrinologist at the Minneapolis VA Medical Center and the University of Minnesota. By the early 1980s, he was ready for a warmer climate -- and a new specialty.

"While working in Minnesota, I went to Puerto Rico in '84 or '85. While there, I phoned everybody in the states about a job," Morley said. "The people at UCLA phoned back with two jobs -- one was endocrinology and the other was neuroscience. I got a job running the (neuroscience) program. I went in with no knowledge of geriatrics and learned that I loved it."

Since arriving in St. Louis in 1989, Morley has served as Dammert professor of gerontology and director of the Division of Geriatric Medicine at Saint Louis University. He also is the director of Geriatric Research, Education and Clinical Center at the St. Louis Veterans Affairs Medical Center.

In addition to Alzheimer's, Morley's research covers many other areas of geriatric medicine, including obesity and anorexia, male menopause and low testosterone, nutrition, aging and sexuality, and bone density in African-Americans.

Taking It to the People

Morley's work extends well beyond the classroom and lab. One of his favorite places is SLU's School of Medicine Health Resource Center, a free Saturday clinic located in the basement of Saint Augustine Church in north St. Louis. The doctors and medical students volunteering at the clinic provide comprehensive primary care to adults and children.

At the urging of medical students, Morley helped establish the clinic in 1994.

It is, he says, "the thing I'm happiest I ever did in my life. It's this wonderful thing I promised to sustain -- with care as good as you would get at SLU."

For the past 17 years, he remained steadfast to that commitment. One of the six current clinic staffers, a second-year medical student from St. Louis, Ashley Haegele, says it's great to have a professor and adviser who hasn't lost his passion for medicine and helping people.

"Dr. Morley still volunteers at the clinic, and when he's there, you do not turn away a patient - that's his rule," Haegele said. "It's important to him that the community sees that we care."

His classroom and clinic style?

"It feels like he's on fast forward," Haegele said. "He's open, lighthearted and still acts like a kid."

Turnaround Artist

Morley's second source of hands-on fulfillment is populated strictly by the elderly. He has been hailed as a nursing home turnaround artist. He declines the title, but relishes his role.

"Compared to the rest of the world, U.S. nursing home care is amazingly good," Morley said. "But we are too medicalized; it should be more of a home."

To help create a homey environment, Morley recommends bringing in plants, children and animals. Never mind the goat who ate all of the administrators' chairs, a chicken who was kicked by a pony, causing the pony to be expelled because the chicken was much beloved, and the llama who was also expelled for spitting at residents. And then there was the robotic dog, which most residents liked as well as a real dog.

The stories are funny, but the therapy is real.

"Pets help nursing home residents connect with their past," Morley wrote in one of his numerous articles on successful aging in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. "Animals and plants add energy and happiness to our lives."

Morley says that aging successfully is the focus of all of his work.

"You need to overcome the things life throws at you. The question is how can we have a great quality of life, how can we be happy -- not how long can we live."

He has authored 21 books and more than 1,000 research and educational articles on geriatric issues. He has served on the editorial boards of nine academic journals. He is the editor for the Journal of the American Medical Directors Association, which recently honored him with its most coveted award.

"He considers himself to be nobody special," Philpot said. "He blushes, even almost gets embarrassed by awards."

Nevertheless, the accolades just keep on coming.

"It's always good when people recognize your efforts, but awards are given for group effort," Morley demurred.

It's a Wonderful Life

Morley travels constantly. He recently presented his Alzheimer's antisense research to a group of scientists in Stockholm. The last weekend in April, he made presentations in Hong Kong and Thoku, Japan, the site of the recent earthquake and tsunami.

But he is firmly anchored and always accessible.

He shares his home and cell phone numbers with all of his patients, who usually use discretion in contacting him. But not always.

"Once, a wonderful older woman called me in Hong Kong to complain about constipation," he laughed.

"He's sort of a kept man, so he can focus his time and energy on his job," Philpot explains, noting that he gets support from three primary sources: "His administrative secretary Susan Brooks, me and his wife."

Morley has been married to fellow South African, Patricia Morley, for more than 40 years ("I think 42; I get these things wrong," he says).

They have lived in Town and Country since moving to this area. At first, Morley had no idea what his next door neighbor, Ozzie Smith, did for a living. (He was playing shortstop at the time for the St. Louis Cardinals.) He was a bit more familiar with another neighbor, the late NASA astronaut Charles "Pete" Conrad Jr., the third man to walk on the moon.

The couple has three children: Robert, a St. Louis County homicide detective, Morley's dream profession ("I would have died to be a homicide detective," he puns); Susan Taylor, a nursing home director, and Jacqueline Dougherty, who works in a hospice. They also have six grandchildren who get top billing in Morley's conversation.

The family includes a rescue dog Morley got several years ago through an auction to benefit the Health Resource Center. Philpot describes the "Benji" lookalike as "loving and somewhat wayward, sort of like his master." He is named "Albert" after Cardinals slugger Albert Pujols.

Morley admits to liking his sports.

"But not tennis. I hate tennis," he said, although he played well enough to get a tennis scholarship, which he declined.

His true love is cricket.

"I never used a computer until I found I could get cricket scores," he said. "I never would have learned otherwise. You used to have to go to each local city for information, so I really learned how to do searches.

"Everything in my life has happened by happenstance," Morley said. "I've had a fun life. I have been very lucky in life to have worked around people who are magnificent and I took the credit!

"God has smiled wonderfully on me."

Gloria Ross is the head of Okara Communications.

Gloria S. Ross is the head of Okara Communications and AfterWords, an obituary-writing and design service.