Remembering David Maurice

Jorge, you are the one who brought him to Columbia!

That is how Miguel Refojo greeted me at an ARVO ceremony in remembrance of David Maurice. Thank you, Miguel; I will take some of the credit. But the truth is somewhat more complex. David's move from Stanford actually originated with him and our Chairman at the time, Dr. Anthony Donn. Dr. Donn had been a fellow in David's laboratory in London, and knew full well the stature of the man. So one sunny day he came to me with the news: "it seems that David will move from Stanford, and he would consider Columbia. What do you think we should do?"

Among his many virtues, Tony is quite a diplomat. I may have thought something like "you are the Chairman, and you are asking me?". It seemed to me that Tony was vaguely worried that I might play prima donna and resist David's recruitment. If so, he need not have worried. I had the greatest of admirations for David and for his work. I also was concerned for years that in spite of professing Ophthalmology and heading a significant research component he did not have a Professorial appointment. So here, to my delighted surprise, I had the instant chance to gain an invaluable colleague practically next door, and to help right what I perceived as a historical wrong. Obviously I embraced that recruitment.

So what did you do?

It seems legitimate to ask "well, the two of you were together for a number of years; what collaborations emerged?" The answer is few. David's interests had shifted to the stroma, while mine have remained attached to the endothelium. But we did one thing together. At the Cornea World Meeting in Orlando Florida, we shared in the presentation of a paper, and wrote an account for the book of the Meeting. I spoke first, and it was quite a thrill to be able say that I was to be followed by a legend. In typical self-deprecating fashion, David began his presentation saying something to the extent that "the legend is working on becoming a myth".

So where is our account? A PubMed search with our names turns up nothing. What happened? To me it is somewhat unclear to this day. Perhaps we sent the chapter too late, and the book went to press without it. Or perhaps someone found the chapter months later fallen behind a heating unit. It is one of many Nature's mysteries that I will not even attempt to solve. But life does give second chances. There are articles being solicited by Professor Anthony Bron for a festschrift in honor of David. That much and more I owe David: I will search for our manuscript. If it has survived repeated disk crashes, I will see that it gets published. If not, I think I can rewrite part of what David had in mind: characteristically innovative thoughts on the role of bicarbonate concentration on the regulation of corneal thickness….

Professor Maurice thinks of sleep.

Our idea was that we would meet every Thursday for lunch. It was wonderful on paper, but life had a way of confounding it. Maybe we met once a month. We talked about opera, world events, soccer, and of course, science performance and science administration. David was a master in pointing out personal or Institutional limitations. When David began to settle in, I took him around Campus and gave some practical hints. Taking him in tow, I felt almost like a child with a new toy. As his office was remodeled and he was able to move in, I remember telling him (only half in jest): "Professor Maurice retires to think. The world will never be the same!"

I was more right than I knew. At one of our Thursday meetings he told me about the work he had begun recently on REM sleep. I had read over the years how REM sleep was credited with a number of near miraculous achievements, such as cleaning up brain memory stacks. The tone of those claims was such that perhaps one would not have been too surprised if someone would have related REM sleep to the strengthening of the soul. So when David told me that he suspected that those eye movements were simply aimed at getting oxygen to the cornea, I paid very close attention. In the seventies I had done a review of metabolic consumption by the cornea, and there were vague problems with oxygen access to the cornea from the aqueous humor. Plus oxygen (O2) is notoriously little soluble in water (about one molecule in 200,000), which is one good reason why we need red blood cells and hemoglobin to carry it around, and there very few cells further away than 20-30 micrometers from blood capillaries. Except for organs like the cornea, which has no blood vessels. Hence, as a physiologist, what David was proposing made immediate sense to me.

David showed me the equations he was working with, and they seemed adequate. He was being cautious about the material, but I told him I thought he had a valid point, and I urged him to publish. I then lost track of his publication quest. Perhaps not surprisingly, he was unable to convince reviewers in the sleep field, and ended up publishing the work in an Eye journal. I hope his work will convince the doubters eventually. The word is out, the alert has been given, and others will pick up the torch.

As much as we miss David, we forge ahead. Fortunately, he belonged to all of us. We saw him in action, we knew what he was made of, and we enjoyed every second of his company. The luxury it was to have him animating meetings and seminars must have left a trail of irreverent, demanding wit in all that were present. In fact, his humor and his rigor have found fertile ground in the younger scientists he trained lately. To me in particular, he has left a message of hope: having seen him, I know that it is possible to have everything in life.

Jorge Fischbarg