dr. C. Thomas Caskey, medical center visionary who built genetics program at Baylor College of Medicine, dies aged 83

dr. C. Thomas Caskey, a pioneering Houston researcher who cleared up mysteries in the human genome and built the genetics program at Baylor College of Medicine, died Thursday. He was 83.

Caskey became known for his intellectual generosity and bold ideas when he moved to Baylor College of Medicine in 1971 and founded the Institute for Molecular Genetics, now the Department of Molecular and Human Genetics. He left university in 1994 but returned as a professor in 2011 to continue his work.

Caskey had recently suffered a stroke and died with his wife of 62, Peggy Pearce Caskey, by his side. His colleagues at Baylor praised his ability to conduct groundbreaking research while encouraging the diverse and skilled group of scientists he recruited.

“He was one of the strongest and most positive personalities out there,” says Dr. Brendan Lee, chair of the Department of Molecular and Human Genetics. “That was the other aspect that he infused into our department, which was, ‘Think good ideas and just do it.’ In some ways that was all of Texas.”

Born in Lancaster, SC, in 1938, Caskey attended the University of South Carolina and later Duke University Medical School. He began his career as a research associate at the National Institutes of Health, where he revealed under Nobel laureate Marshall Nirenberg that the genetic code for amino acids is universal to all species.

When he launched the genetics program at Baylor, he expanded the research by recruiting scientists from around the world who studied a wide variety of species, including mice and fruit flies.

Under his own research achievements, Caskey developed a method of identifying human DNA in the 1980s that became a widely accepted standard for forensic analysis worldwide.

In the 1990s, he revealed the genetic basis of hereditary diseases such as myotonic dystrophy, which causes progressive muscle weakness. Through that work, he clarified the genetic phenomenon of anticipation, in which genetic disorders become more severe or appear in successive generations at a younger age.

“Today, technology makes identifying gene mutations quite easy,” Lee said. “But he did it at a time when it was like climbing Mount Everest.”

Caskey left Baylor in 1994 to become senior vice president of Human Genetics and Vaccines Discovery at Merck Research Laboratories. His career took him back to Texas in 2006, when he took over the helm of the Brown Foundation Institute of Molecular Medicine at the University of Texas Health Science Center in Houston, before returning to Baylor.

dr. Huda Zoghbi, the director of the Jan and Dan Duncan Neurological Research Institute at Texas Children’s Hospital, has credited Caskey for inspiring her co-discovery of the gene that causes spinocerebellar ataxia type 1, a crippling neurological disease. She asked for his advice when she started running her own lab.

“I loved brainstorming with him and talking about what seems scientifically impossible,” she said. “You don’t talk about little things. You talk big ideas, and I will miss that.”

Caskey’s numerous academic awards include the William Allan Award from the American Society of Human Genetics in 2021 and the William G. Anlyan, MD, Lifetime Achievement Award from the Duke University Medical Alumni Association in 2015.

In addition to Caskey’s wife, he leaves behind his two children, Clifton and Caroline Caskey; three grandchildren; his brother, John Caskey; and his unrelated “son” Steve Marinier.

The family is planning a small private service and will host a celebration of life at a later date.

julian.gill@chron.com

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