John Leslie Middlebrook

John Middlebrook’s wife Cheryl took this photo of him when he received the Alumnus of the Year award from Pacific University Award. “We all love this one,” she said. “It captures his smile.”

There is no doubt that the family, friends and colleagues of John Leslie Middlebrook would say of him that a good man and a great mind was lost too soon.

Middlebrook was born Dec. 16, 1946, in Astoria, to John and Kathryn “Kay” (Mangun) Middlebrook. Kay, the daughter of Lucile and Leslie Mangun, moved from Pomona, Calif., to McMinnville and eventually to Astoria, where she taught for 30 years in Astoria middle and high schools. A Stayton resident, Kay died Dec. 10, 2010, at 95 years of age.

An avid fisherwoman who “loved children, art, birds, music and adored family, friends, travel and loved living,” Kay clearly passed on to her son John this verve for life and love of the Oregon country – the mountains, rivers, lakes and forests.

One of John’s Astoria schoolmates, Carolyn Mackey Huhtala, now of Beaverton, wrote of him in his early years, “I had the pleasure of knowing John since attending Capt. Robert Gray Elementary School in Astoria together. We were in a high school play, ‘The Diary of Ann Frank.’ We were close friends and I am deeply saddened by his passing. John did great things for the world.”

Middlebrook, an enthusiastic outdoorsman, was deeply involved in scientific research in the field of toxicology, mentored young scientists and technicians (who called him “Dr. John”), was involved in substance abuse programs in his community and was an early pioneer in the field of recombinant DNA.

It seems that everything he did, he threw himself into 110 percent.

John’s daughter, Molly Middlebrook Amos, of Shenandoah Junction, W.V., and an environmental scientist for the EPA, said, “My dad grew up in Astoria and his family had land and a farm there. His dad used to take him hunting and on frequent hikes, 15 to 20 miles all through the woods.”

“I think his love of science was spawned from that. It was always ingrained in him.”

Middlebrook graduated with a B.S. in chemistry from Pacific University in 1968, received his Ph.D. in pharmacology and toxicology at Duke University in 1972 and completed a postdoctoral degree in pharmacology at Stanford University Medical School in 1975.

“He met my mom at Duke,” Amos continued, “then ended up moving to California for Stanford and then they went to Frederick, Md. He loved Oregon but he never moved back,” she added. “He and my mother divorced, and he met and married Cheryl Parrott when I was in third grade.”

Parrott, now a National Institute of Health scientist, added to the picture. “John became a research junkie early in life. His dad died when John was only 15 of a metastatic cancer ... John’s quest was to banish the disease, a goal shared by many, accomplished by none. I know that he has brought us closer, though.”

One of the standout features of Middlebrook’s life was his keen mind and the application of that intelligence. Parrott, a professor at Hood College in Frederick, gave a quick limn of John – “surface only.”

“John was interested in compounds that crossed the blood-brain barrier,” she said. “He knew that a few natural toxins – from animals, plants and microbes – had the potential of being carrier molecules for drugs and could be useful in fighting diseases of the nervous system such as MS and Parkinson’s.” 

“He also saw a use for such drug vectors in treatment of trauma to the brain and spinal cord, as can occur with stroke, Guillain-Barré Syndrome, and even traumatic brain injury.”

“Necrotizing [something that causes the death of cells] toxins intrigued him. He joked that if he ever got vanity license plates, they would say ‘Necrins’ – the term he coined for those unusual toxins. He foresaw a future where their destructive power could be targeted to tumor cells in central nervous system cancers. He even imagined a necrin as a possible drug to seek and destroy HIV before it had a chance to become AIDS.”

Middlebrook also enjoyed the more “earthly pleasures” of skiing, racquetball, tennis, hiking, hunting, fishing and international travel. In addition, he was an avid gourmet cook and was skilled at woodworking, building authentic reproductions of classical 18th-century American furniture.

Amos adds, “Dad was highly intelligent. He authored or co-authored over 100 papers, which caused him to travel a lot. Thinking about his life, all the hobbies he had and all the things he did, I thought, ‘How diversified you were, Dad!’”

John, 63, died Sunday, July 18, 2010, at St. Mark’s Hospital in Salt Lake City. As Amos tells the story, “He returned on a red-eye flight from a conference in Monterey, Calif., in 1999 and was driving home to Frederick when he fell asleep at the wheel and had a horrendous accident, flipping the car several times. ...It was really nasty – he was in intensive care for months,” said Amos, who became one of his caregivers during this period. “At one point in ICU, one of the doctors showed me a scan of his brain and half of it was bruised. ...Rehab took years. He tried to return to work and then decided to move to back Salt Lake – he wanted to be close to the mountains. He was familiar with it [Middlebrook had been scientific director at Dugway Proving Ground in Utah] and that made it easier for him.”

Middlebrook had three children: Amos, Tara Middlebrook Scheck of Hagerstown, Md. (a family physician with a specialty in biochemistry) and John Charles Middlebrook, an IT consultant, of Frederick, Md.

Parrott spoke of a happier time when she and John, as a joke, decided to write each other’s obituaries. “Here’s a short paragraph I wrote about him,” Parrott said, “He approved the following.”

He spoke fluent German and Pig Latin. He loved licorice and anchovies, but not together. He shot the rapids on the Snake River and skied Black Diamond corn snow in his 50s. Nothing made him sadder than hypocrisy, cruelty or intolerance. He loved well and was well loved.

Middlebrook was a man of deep feeling, with a wry sense of humor, wit and character. “John was brilliant, indefatigable and altogether irreplaceable,” she said.

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