BAR HARBOR — No one believed that Ken Paigen was in his 90s.
Doctors said he had the brain of a 60-something. When people asked his secret to staying young, he’d credit “really good single malt scotch.”
But his boundless curiosity and capacity for fun must also have had something to do with it.
Paigen, a professor emeritus and former director of The Jackson Laboratory, died Saturday after a short illness at age 92. He technically retired in 2018, but his family says he was working full-time until about four months ago when he had a fall.
Mary Ann Handel is a colleague in the same research group. “Even after his fall, I said, ‘Ken will be back in his office in March or April writing another grant proposal,’” she said.
“He skied until he was 86,” said Jen Wales, Paigen’s youngest daughter.
Daughter Gina Paigen said that two years ago, he tore his rotator cuff snorkeling in the Cayman Islands, and managed to heal it completely with physical therapy so he wouldn’t need surgery.
“He was magic,” she said.
“He was incredibly patient. He didn’t rush through anything.”
When Paigen had hold of an interesting problem, Handel said, “he was like a dog with a bone. He wouldn’t quit until he had it unraveled.”
He helped his children and grandchildren with their high school science, but he’d be cursing the curriculum the whole way, because it was so staid and limited.
At work and with his family, he always counseled intellectual risk-taking, the habit of asking, “But what else?”
As news of Paigen’s death has spread this week, colleagues are reflecting on his uncanny ability to ask the best questions, a habit that earned him a reputation as a scientist’s scientist.
“They were questions that would leave the rest of us thinking, ‘Why didn’t we think of that? It’s just so right,’” Handel said.
Paigen inspired confidence, a trait remembered most famously when a major fire damaged the laboratory in 1989, just after he’s accepted the position of director. He was at the rental car desk at the Bangor airport when he got word of the fire, the story goes, about to return to California. Instead he headed straight to the lab and led the recovery effort.
The community’s response to the fire “reaffirmed our decision not to let this incident jeopardize our work,” he told the Bar Harbor Times at the time. “We lost much in the flames but we will not let the fire strike us twice by losing sight of our goals.”
He made the case that a planned expansion of the lab must move forward.
“It’s going to take a lot of hard work, sacrifice of time and more money than we had planned on, but we are going to do it,” he told the Times. “This is not optimism; this is what we are going to do.”
He was also a passionate advocate, before it was widely accepted, for how important the complete mapping of the human genome was going to be to biomedical research.
“He was constantly ahead of the curve scientifically and thinking to the next decade’s important problems, how and where to move with new technologies, how they can answer critical questions,” Handel said.
During his tenure as director, 1989-2003, the laboratory’s staff grew from 548 to 1,162, and its operating budget from $25.4 million to $50.4 million.
“He was my confidante and an inspiration to me,” Ed Liu, the current president and CEO, wrote in a note to the lab community Saturday. “I personally have treasured our moments together either over a glass of whiskey in his living room sharing a laugh, or on his beloved boat acting out commands, or in my office pondering the future of science.”
Paigen swam every day in Long Pond from May to October, and for many years was the reigning champion of the annual Long Pond Regatta. He raced a 20-foot Highlander called Soleil, but to his opponents it was also known as “Big Red.”
The family’s current cruising boat is an Olson 36 called Danica. The name means morning star. Wales said the boat’s name is a tribute to Ken’s wife Bev, also a professor at The Jackson Laboratory, because she’s an early riser.
When their children were young, she said, they developed a family rule that Ken and Bev were “not allowed to be writing grants at the same time.”
He was beloved throughout the lab community, known to some in recent years as Papa Smurf, a nod to his kindness and his curly hair.
“Ken was more than an executive director,” said longtime lab development staffer Kate Jordan. “He was our mensch. He was our anchor.”