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Alum Profile: Dr. Martha Bridge Denckla ’54

Martha Bridge Denckla ’54 is an MD and the director of the Developmental Cognitive Neurology (DCN) Department at the Kennedy Krieger Institute, a part of the John Hopkins Hospital institutions in Baltimore, Maryland. Of her department, Denckla says that “most of it is a research group. It’s a very academic place. I am a professor of psychiatry and neurology, and I run this unit.” The Kennedy Krieger Institute overall is “devoted to children’s chronic brain disabilities,” explains Denckla.

Denckla’s field, neuropsychology, is a relatively new endeavor in the medical profession. “Until very recently, psychiatrists were separate from us,” she explains. “There are psychiatrists and neurologists who are meeting now on these issues. Previously, there was a division of labor.” Denckla has spent her career researching the neuropsychology of children. “It’s the study of behaviors as they are related to brain systems and circuits. I deal with problem learners. And the other wrinkle is, with children you’re dealing with the developing brain.”

Denckla graduated summa cum laude from Bryn Mawr College, and then went on to Harvard Medical School where she specialized in behavioral neurology. She graduated cum laude in 1962. “I was married right out of med school and did all my training and early career while raising kids. I’d come home to my own laboratory,” she quips.

Her specialization in developing brains marked an unexpected turn in her early career. “I was actually an internist who went into adult neurology. When I took my first job at Columbia University I was asked to come to the child neurology clinic once a week,” she says. There she examined children who had, for example, serious problems reading or speaking. “That’s how it all started. It was a part-time thing. I was dissatisfied with the information the staff there was giving me [about the patients]. That was my drive, the engine for how I started my research.”

In addition to her research, Denckla has published over 100 articles throughout her career. “One of the tests I made up has become a mainstay of people testing children to see if they’re ready to read,” she says. The test is called the RAN, Rapid Automatized Naming test. “It’s probably what I’ll be remembered for.”

Denckla attended BFS from grades 4 thru 12, “but they made me skip grade 7 so I am very young for my class, having started young due to my December birthday. So I was only 16 when I graduated.”

Denckla spent her early years in Brooklyn—“Bensonhurst, not the more fashionable parts,” she says. Her father was a physician. “My mom taught at New Utrecht High School even after we moved to Manhattan when I was in that crazy skip year of 8th grade.” She wryly points out that “folks were not very psychologically sophisticated in those old days!” She also recalls that “we were not as wealthy as most of the classmates at BFS and at this time of year I always remember that I was one of the kids who did not go any place wonderful for spring break.”

Today one of her sons is married and lives with his wife and daughters in Brooklyn.

Her strongest memory of BFS is learning “a unique combination of intellectual rigor and good human morals.” She says, “I came out of BFS with a tremendous set of values and a strong ability to write. Also, a sense of respect for others, and how can you change your own behavior.”

She also recalls warmly “my 4th grade teacher Ms. Watkins. We made little nature museums. I think a lot of my interest in biology goes back to her.” She also remembered Mr. Vaughn. “He was our history teacher. He got us all arguing over current events.”

“The same philosophies I learned are what I’ve carried forward—the intellectual rigor coupled with concern for others. They’re especially important in the medical profession. I’m just so lucky I get paid to do something so interesting,” Denckla says of her career. “It has an intrinsic fascination in people. Why am I good at this and not good at that? It’s all around you.’