Neuroscientist who made major advances in treating paralysis

Marie Filbin: October 25th, 1955-January 15th, 2014

Sat, Jan 25, 2014, 00:01

The work of Marie Filbin, from Lurgan, Co Armagh, who has died, aged 58, after a long illness, is crucial to understanding paralysis due to spinal cord injury and multiple sclerosis, and to developing drugs that may some day reverse the conditions.

Filbin spent most of her of career in the United States. At the time of her death, she was distinguished professor and director of the specialised neuroscience research programme at Hunter College in the City University of New York. She made several breakthroughs in enabling nerves of the spinal cord to regrow after injury. Among the honours bestowed on her were being joint winner of the Ameritec Prize for significant accomplishment towards a cure for paralysis: and being inducted into the Researchers’ Hall of Fame of the National Multiple Sclerosis Society.

Filbin could have taken a professorship in an elite institution, but was committed to Hunter College and her students. Many came from poor backgrounds, and she helped them improve their lives. She took her research out of the university to speak to spinal injury victims and MS sufferers.

Filbin always wore her learning lightly. She never lost her accent, moderating it slightly to facilitate communication.

Warm personality
As a person, she was warm. A few years ago she flew family and close friends from Ireland to New York for an extended party. She explained this was because she had never given them a wedding.

Marie Theresa Filbin was born in October 1955 in Lurgan, the youngest of three daughters to John Filbin, who owned his family’s long-established bakery, and his wife Maureen (née McWilliams).

Her adolescence coincided with the height of the Troubles. Once an IRA man dragged her to safety from the middle of a gun battle. Such experiences made her decide to leave the North.

She graduated from the University of Bath with a BSc and a doctorate in biochemistry. At the end of her third year as an undergraduate she showed such promise she was chosen to work in the State Technical Laboratories in Finland, a leading world institution.

In 1982 she moved to the US, working first at the University of Maryland, then Johns Hopkins University.

Illness blighted the last years of her life, leaving her confined to a wheelchair. Committed to her family, she travelled back to Ireland last month for the wedding of her only niece. Unfortunately, she was not to return to New York.

She is survived by her sister Elizabeth, brother-in-law Liam Glover, a niece and five nephews. She was predeceased by her sister Jane.