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Dr. Merrill Wolf, 79; prodigy went on to adult successes

Dr. Wolf was a founding professor at the UMass Medical School in Worcester, He did research on the central nervous system. Dr. Wolf was a founding professor at the UMass Medical School in Worcester, He did research on the central nervous system.
By Gil Bliss
Globe Correspondent / October 9, 2011

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“Yale Prodigy’’ was the headline in Life magazine when Merrill K. Wolf graduated in 1945 at 14. At the time, the Guinness World Records book called him the youngest college graduate ever.

By then he was used to youthful accomplishment. At 6 months old, according to family lore, he spoke his first sentence: “Put on another record.’’ He played a Franz Liszt rhapsody on the piano at 22 months, gave public performances by age 5, and composed a symphony by 8.

All this was a prelude to a career that blended music and medicine in an intellectual counterpoint. A founding professor at University of Massachusetts Medical School in Worcester, Dr. Wolf taught neuroanatomy and was known internationally for his research on central nervous system myelination.

Colleagues and friends at UMass Medical School will gather privately next month to remember Dr. Wolf, who died of congestive heart failure and renal failure June 27 in his Berlin home. He was 79.

“The experts say that prodigies never come to anything, and he lived with that specter, which is dire and almost malicious,’’ said his wife, Emily.

Dual talents on the keyboard and in the laboratory held advantages for Dr. Wolf, who taught at Harvard Medical School before UMass.

“His musical training carried over to his science,’’ said Dr. Richard Sidman, who met Dr. Wolf when both were at the National Institutes of Health in Maryland. “He learned to be systematic and hard-working, using musical skills involving repetition and endurance. He had a great facility with hands and head to sustain a virtually professional level of piano performance, and carried this over to his demanding laboratory work.’’

Working with tissue cultures involves “technically complicated maneuvers with the hands that you have to do in the same sequence and in the same exact detail, just what he learned to do in his music,’’ said Sidman, a professor at Harvard Medical School and Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center. “He wasn’t just a pair of hands, because he applied his splendid mind to research problems, and was looking ahead to solve problems before they became obvious to others.’’

Susan Gagliardi, a UMass Medical School professor of cell biology and neurology and a research colleague of Dr. Wolf’s, said students loved him because he wove vivid recollections of clinical cases into neuroanatomy lectures “and his anecdotes would really bring it to life.’’

Gagliardi was a student when she met Dr. Wolf, who she said amazed classes by drawing the nervous system on a chalkboard with his left hand while simultaneously writing text with his right hand.

With their research, she said, “we were trying to address indirectly a number of human diseases, some genetic, some unknown, that affect the central nervous system, the most common being multiple sclerosis.’’

In the competitive world of research, Dr. Wolf displayed kindness and attentiveness not always found in his peers, said Wendie Allain, courses administrator at the medical school.

“The ego was left at the door when he came to our school,’’ she said. “A lot of prodigies end up in a bad way, but Ken didn’t.’’

Born in Cleveland, Dr. Wolf was known as Ken, and he was educated privately until entering what was then Western Reserve University at 10 to study chemistry and mathematics.

“He showed such precocity with language and music that normal education couldn’t handle him,’’ his wife said.

An obstinate English professor at Western refused to admit Dr. Wolf to a literature course required for graduation, she said. His case came to the attention of renowned composer Paul Hindemith, then in residence at Yale, who took the 11-year-old under his wing in New Haven.

Dr. Wolf pursued music for several years after graduating from Yale, but “it was difficult to get promoted and get concerts,’’ his wife said.

Having relatively small hands for a pianist was also a factor, she said, and his parents encouraged him to go to Western Reserve’s medical school.

“He did well, and for the first time he was among age peers and felt accepted,’’ said his wife, who added that he was elected class president his senior year.

His cousin, Dr. Martin Lipp of Monterey, Calif., said the class presidency was “a validating and liberating’’ experience.

Dr. Wolf graduated in 1956 and interned at Peter Bent Brigham Hospital in Boston.

While there, he was invited to play piano at Radcliffe College and met Emily Vaughan, a graduate student. They married in 1958.

From Brigham, Dr. Wolf went to the National Institutes of Health for two years of research and training in neuroanatomical science. He returned to Boston for a neurology fellowship at Massachusetts General Hospital.

“He didn’t really like clinical work and was mourning the death knell of his music career, so I encouraged him to try a series of piano competitions in Europe,’’ his wife said, “but in some, he just didn’t win, and others were found to be corrupt.’’

The couple returned to Greater Boston and he became a fellow in neurology at Harvard Medical School, where he later was an associate professor and lecturer.

In 1970, he became one of the first professors at the new UMass Medical School in Worcester. He retired in 2008 as a professor emeritus.

In addition to his wife, Dr. Wolf leaves two sisters from his father’s previous marriage, Eleanor Herrick of Bismarck, N.D., and Muriel Rivchun of Lyndhurst, Ohio.

Dr. Wolf left his body to the UMass Medical School for teaching and research.

While teaching at the medical school, Dr. Wolf performed concerts and recitals for friends, colleagues, and the public. The Wolfs had a summer home in Wentworth, N.H.

For 31 years in Wentworth, Dr. Wolf performed annual recitals in a series that continues.

Gagliardi said he also performed annually at the medical school’s graduations and performed a harpsichord recital for staff last August, when he was undergoing dialysis treatments.

Thomas Murray, university organist and Yale music professor, said “it was a mark of his brilliance that he could have this second career alongside medicine.’’

“He was a remarkable person with a zany sense of humor,’’ Murray said. “If he hadn’t been so friendly, he would have been intimidating.’’