An explosion in the family

Motivated by the discovery of his fatherís suicide, a Vanderbilt researcher seeks clues to depression

Bill Snyder
Published: November, 2003

Randy Blakely's parents, Glenn and Elizabeth, in happier times—in a park near their home in Columbus, GA.
Courtesy of Randy Blakely
Nearly 50 years after his father committed suicide, and 30 years after he found out about it, Randy Blakely is still trying to understand why it happened.

Blakely, director of the Vanderbilt Center for Molecular Neuroscience, was only 22 months old when, in December 1960, his father ended his life. “It was like a bomb went off,” he says. “The debris that scattered through the lives of my siblings and my mother didn’t allow a lot of penetration into this issue for a long time.”

As soon as they could, his three older brothers and older sister drifted away from the family home in Columbus and nearby Fort Benning, Ga., where their father, Glenn Blakely, a career Army officer and veteran of World War II and Korea, had directed the ROTC program.

One sibling would flee to the jungles of Vietnam. Three other siblings and Blakely’s mother would later be treated for depression. But because he was not told what had happened – “I thought he had a heart attack,” Blakely says – he was sheltered from the shock, the sadness and the anger that continued to reverberate for years through the rest of his family.

It was not until he was a college junior, and already planning a career in science, that his mother told him the story: How his father had become severely depressed the previous autumn. How she sought help from their minister, and how her husband angrily rejected it. How desperate he became and how, that December morning, “The children found him.”

In shock, Blakely scoured his father’s medical and military records. Glenn Blakely had been diagnosed with hepatitis, inflammation of the liver that could have left him fatigued, depressed and perhaps convinced that he was going to die anyway. But there is no evidence of a family history of depression, no biological clue to explain why he ended his life at the age of 47.

Meanwhile, Blakely pursued his career, earning his Ph.D. in neuroscience from Johns Hopkins University in 1987, and teaching and doing research at Emory University before joining the Vanderbilt faculty in 1995. His research involves neurotransmitter transporters, proteins involved in the transmitting of electrical signals through the brain. “It is a very odd turn of events that my research would end up identifying genes that are the targets in the brain for antidepressants,” he says.

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