Margaret H. Abbott, genetics researcher

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Margaret Hawkins Abbott, a retired Johns Hopkins Medical School genetics researcher who investigated families with inherited conditions for nearly five decades, died of dementia complications Feb. 1 at Keswick Multi-Care Center. She was 89 and lived in Ruxton.

"She was a Johns Hopkins institution," said Dr. Jason Brandt, Johns Hopkins Medical School director of medical psychology and professor of psychiatry. "She dedicated her career to nursing and genetic diseases and to ferreting out family medical histories."

Born Margaret Rhys Hawkins in Cumberland, she was raised in La Plata. Her father, William P. Hawkins, owned an apartment building and her mother, Elizabeth Lloyd Powell, was a homemaker.

She attended La Plata High School and the old St. Mary's Seminary and Junior College in St. Mary's City, where she graduated from high school and earned an associate of arts degree in 1943. She graduated from the Johns Hopkins Hospital School of Nursing in 1946.

Mrs. Abbott was head nurse in surgery at Hopkins Hospital from 1946 to 1948 and until 1953 was a nursing instructor and supervisor in the Marburg private patient wing. According to a biographical sketch supplied by the Hopkins Archives, she received a bachelor of science degree in nursing from Hopkins in 1952.

She was then a senior caseworker for the Charles County Department of Public Welfare and was later assistant in the Department of Preventive Medicine at the University of Maryland School of Medicine.

In 1957, she moved into medical genetics and became an assistant to Dr. Victor McKusick, a pioneer in the field.

"She could be precise and demand that things be done a certain way, the right way, but she had a heart of gold," said Dr. Susan Folstein, a University of Miami psychiatrist. "When it came to her patients, she had the kindest, gentlest ways. She was quite a character and I admired her greatly."

Medical colleagues said that Mrs. Abbott was the administrator of the Moore Clinic in the 1960s and assisted patients affected by dwarfism and inherited blood diseases.

"Margaret was of the old school. When I first met her, she gave me the once-over. She tried to intimidate me but we became close friends. She was really a gem," said Della Malone, administrative secretary in the Hopkins Institute of Genetic Medicine. "She was quite a character. ... With her patients, she was remarkable. They would call and ask for her. Her notes were so thorough and her handwriting so precise, there was never a question."

She joined the Baltimore Huntington's Disease Center at Hopkins in 1982 as a clinical nurse and medical genealogist in the Hopkins Psychiatry Department. She researched Huntington's, an inherited neurological condition that affects movement and can cause mood changes and dementia. She worked with patients — and developed large genealogical charts of extended families — and counseled people at risk.

"She was one of the few research nurses who would continue to see patients once they entered nursing homes," said Dr. Brandt. "She collected data and conducted neurological exams and on her own. She also went way beyond the call of duty and worked with the nursing home staff to help patients who were not getting the care they needed."

While still working for Dr. McKusick, she received a master's degree in public health in 1960 from the Hopkins School of Hygiene and Public Health. She received a joint appointment as instructor in psychiatry in 1987 and was named an assistant professor in 1988. She retired in 2005.

"She was a phenomenon," said Dr. Brandt. "Margaret had an exacting style and insisted on doing everything the proper way. But her clinical manner with patients was always gentle, warm and absolutely amazing. Her devotion to her work was inspirational."

Mrs. Abbott had been an active member of the Johns Hopkins Nurses Alumnae Association and served on its board and executive committee.

She published numerous scientific articles in her field, including longevity and heritable disorders.

Mrs. Abbott was an active member of the Maryland Chapter of the National Society of the Colonial Dames, the Johns Hopkins Club and Christ Episcopal Church in LaPlata. Friends said that she was an accomplished cook and that her meals reflected the same standards of care she gave her medical work.

Survivors include her husband of 45 years, Cornelius Webster Abbott of Baltimore; two stepsons, Jesse Abbott of Scarborough, Maine, and John Abbott of Louisville, Ky.; and two stepdaughters, Aline Ybarra of Gilbert, Ariz., and Carrie Moore of Ridgefield, Conn.

Plans for a memorial service are incomplete.

jacques.kelly@baltsun.com

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