State of Maine: Big heart, bigger brain made Jackson Lab’s Paigen special

Ken Paigen was hired to head The Jackson Laboratory in 1989. At the Bangor airport on his way back home to California to prepare for his move east, the news broke that the Lab was on fire. Paigen abandoned his flight and headed back to Bar Harbor.

What is a nationally recognized mammalian genetics research center doing in Maine in the first place? Founder C.C. Little, former president of the University of Maine, a regular summer presence on Mount Desert Island and a trustee of the Mount Desert Island Biological Laboratory, thought he could make a go of it here and persuaded other members of the MDI summer community to help.

The Jackson Laboratory opened its doors in 1929; in 1947, disaster struck. A fire swept through Maine, destroying a quarter-million acres of forest and hundreds of homes. MDI was not spared. The fire devastated the Lab campus.

It could have been a turning point. Had Little been right in selecting Bar Harbor as the home for his research facility? He was confident that he had. As he campaigned to gather the resources to rebuild, he attributed the Lab’s success to “factors of a spiritual nature.”

In Martha Harmon’s “C.C. Little and the Founding of the Jackson Laboratory,” Little goes on to make the case for keeping the Lab right where it started. The laboratory, he insisted, “must be located where work can be carried on all the year around without interruption … [where] out of door recreation both for young and old is a continuing part of daily life … There is no pressure to maintain a social or economic standard … relaxation and freedom from complexities in daily living conditions is a tremendous factor in freeing the mind for concentration on the major objective, namely research.” In short, rural life was good for the unique collection of mass intelligence at the Lab.

Little remained at the helm until his retirement in 1956, and the Lab went on with just three other presidents (and two interims) until 1989, when Ken Paigen was hired. The fire that year was confined to a single mouse-breeding building, but home to hundreds of thousands of the world-famous JAX mice.

The Jackson Laboratory is the pre-eminent home for the development and breeding of research mice used by scientists around the world. With a short life cycle and a high degree of genetic overlap with humans, they are ideal research models for seeking cures for human disease. JAX mice raise hope that diseases such as Alzheimer’s and cancer may become treatable or be eliminated altogether.

Ken Paigen was the man who put the “gnome” in genome. Compact in build, he had a bald head with a fringe of unruly curls. Both hair and beard were permanently salt and pepper. He would shift his gaze to the left and stare into the middle distance while he pondered a question, but when his eyes came back they were often alight with glee or mischief. He had a big heart and a bigger brain, and he knew how to use them.

The fire in 1989 could have been another transition point if the Lab had yielded to the temptation to decamp to a research center such as Boston but Paigen, like Little, renewed the institution’s commitment to its original campus. He also embraced Little’s enthusiasm for “out-of-door recreation,” particularly on his daily swim or at the helm of a sailboat. Neither the perils of sailing with crew culled from the ranks of the Lab’s faculty nor an unscheduled dunking when he went overboard dampened his love of the water.

Under his leadership, the Lab became a Cancer Center as designated by the National Institute of Cancer, the only mammalian laboratory so designated. He led a significant expansion of the research campus and doubled the number of employees. In 2003, he stepped down from his office and returned to his lab, continuing his research until very recently.

Ken Paigen passed away last week at the age of 92. Colleagues of every age claim him as a friend and mentor. He was able to ask just the right question to reinvigorate a derailed research project while leaving a scientist’s self-confidence intact.

Ken could sketch out advanced science on the back of a placemat at a coffee shop, leaving a non-scientist thinking “Yeah! I get that!” His particular gift was his ability to know just how to approach a colleague, a student or an elected official to good effect. He was critical in passing Maine’s first research and development bond because he went to Augusta not trying to explain the wonders of science but to tout the economic benefits.

He was so young, in all the ways that count. Despite his 92 years, it seems too soon for the parting glass.

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Jill Goldthwait

Jill Goldthwait

Jill Goldthwait worked for 25 years as a registered nurse at Mount Desert Island Hospital. She has served as a Bar Harbor town councilor and as an independent state senator from Hancock County.

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