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The Prince of Pain
The Prize

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Fall 1997
The Prince of Pain
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The late researcher and humanist John Liebeskind taught the world that there's nothing wrong with admitting it hurts
By Ben Carey
Illustrations by Jonathon Rosen

On a Tuesday morning, just months before he was diagnosed with throat cancer, and before surgeons removed his voice box -- an organ that he used more often and better than most men -- John Liebeskind was on his usual 6 a.m. walk around Rancho Park golf course, across the street from the 20th Century Fox lot. He was striding along Pico Boulevard, when a car swept to the curb as if to cut him off. He stopped. The car door swung open. And there inside, Liebeskind could see his wife, Julia, and son, Ben.

"Excuse me, professor," said Julia, "but only members of the National Science Academy allowed inside."

"What?" Liebeskind asked.

"You're in. You've been voted into the National Academy!" Julia exclaimed.

The National Academy of Sciences. The country's most prestigious scientific society, an elite club whose members include Einstein, Pauling, Salk, Feynman and UCLA's Elizabeth Newfeld. Knowing he was on the short list for election to the academy, Liebeskind had joked, "I don't know how much pride you can take in being a member of an organization where the average age is deceased."

The overwhelming honor, which comes suddenly and is forever yours, was bound to rest a bit uneasily on Leibeskind's shoulders; he redefined "self-effacing" while establishing himself as one of the world's most highly regarded pioneers in the field of pain. Before his death from cancer at the age of 62 in September, Liebeskind, a research psychologist, was an outspoken expert -- and critic -- on pain and its treatment. In the late '80s and early '90s, his laboratory at UCLA produced a remarkable series of experiments demonstrating that animals recovering from surgery suffer significant immune suppression. In particular, when rats with lung cancer are in pain, their tumors grow, but when they are given pain killers, the animals' immune systems rally to contain the growth. The studies helped explain, among other things, why undermedicated patients rehabilitating from surgery are so highly prone to infection.


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