The Genius from La Crescenta
Dr. Marian Cleeves Diamond is one of the foremost researchers in the anatomy of the brain. She is a professor of anatomy and neuroanatomy at the University of California, and at 85 years old still lectures. In fact, her dynamic lectures are now shared by thousands on YouTube, making her perhaps the oldest YouTube sensation. She is best known for her work on environment and the brain, noting the correlation between brain growth and an enriched environment, and is famous for her controversial discoveries on the physical structure of Albert Einstein’s brain. An author of many books and articles, her discoveries in neuroscience have changed the way science looks at the brain’s potential to develop.
So where did this genius come from? What influenced her amazing life? Why, her childhood in La Crescenta, of course.
Marian Cleeves was raised on 20 acres of rocky orchard land off of Briggs Avenue just below Briggs Terrace. The Cleeves’ land was roughly bounded east-west by Briggs and Rosemont, and north-south by Rockdell and Whittier. Her father, Dr. Cleeves, had emigrated from northern England where he had witnessed the lung problems of the coal miners of that region. He came to La Crescenta, at that time a pulmonary health mecca, because of his specialty in treating lung disease. Some of his patients included artists such as world-famous portrait painter Stephen Seymour Thomas and Disney animator Ben Sharpsteen (director of “Dumbo” and “Pinocchio”), who influenced the doctor’s six children towards success.
It was an idyllic childhood, rich in physical activity and intellectual stimulation. Dr. Cleeves and his wife were very involved with the community and the kids were shaped by the many community leaders they met. Days were spent in the sunshine – hiking the San Gabriel Mountains, swimming in their pool, and working in the orchards. It was a perfect environment to grow up in. Dr. Cleeves even posted a sign in their front yard “Sunnyslope – A Place in the Sun Reserved for Children.”
Marian has particularly strong memories of her sister Rosemary, nine years older than her but still a major influence on the strong-minded and brilliant child. Rosemary was a nursing student and plastered the walls of the girls’ bedroom with anatomy drawings, which fascinated the young Marian. That, along with the tutelage of her physician father, stimulated a desire to study the human body and brain. The tipping point for her lifelong passion for research into brains came when she was in college during WWII.
Rosemary had been sent to England as an Army nurse. While there she became ill with lupus, a sometimes fatal auto-immune disease, and was sent home where she died soon after. This incident pushed Marian in the direction that became her life. In Marian’s own words:
“I was 19 at the time she passed away, and I promised her that someday I would learn something about the relationship between lupus and the brain, my developing passion. I needed decades of work to narrow down an appropriate area of the brain showing a correlation with the immune system. Every new discovery of the brain provided me with at least 10 new questions, taking me in new directions before coming back to the initial problem. It was only in the last decade that we isolated a part of the cerebral cortex, the outer layers of the large cerebral hemispheres, which was definitely concerned with immune functions. By the time we published our findings in 2001, I felt a huge sigh of relief that I had fulfilled my promise.”
Today, one can find the name of Rosemary Cleeves on a plaque outside Clark Magnet High School, memorializing each of the Clark Junior High graduates who died during WWII. Up at Berkeley, Dr. Marian Cleeves Diamond still has fond memories of her childhood, and cites them as her major influence in each interview or biography done on her remarkable life. That promise she made to her sister 75 years ago stands out as a driving factor in her research.
Dr. Diamond, a child of the Crescenta sagebrush, is today a giant of the sciences.