(Above) Margherita and Al Atwell

Clear Lake resident sees research  done decades ago put into use today

by Marianne Gasaway

You never know when, or how, you might inspire others.  Just ask Margherita Atwell.

Today, Marg and her husband, Al, live in the Bayside area on the south side of Clear Lake, but back in the 1960s, Des Moines was home.  Al was a Master Sergeant for the U.S. Air Force Recruiting Detachment in Des Moines and Marg was employed outside of the home.  Al often promoted furthering education as a benefit of enlisting in the service.  Ultimately, he also became the inspiration for his wife to pursue her education.

Marg said she was a bit reluctant to enroll, but with Al’s support— and his offer to also sign up for classes too, the pair became students at Drake University.  A successful undergraduate experience sparked even more study for Marg.  Her college advisor pushed for her to consider graduate studies, and with Al’s continued strong support, she embarked on the quest for a graduate degree in psychology.

The idea for Marg’s thesis was born of real life experience.

“Fear of the unknown has always motivated man to search for understanding,” she wrote in the summation of her thesis.  “For centuries, man attributed an epileptic attack to an omen, an evil curse which overpowered the victim… Today man fears sudden death and many theories attempt to explain it.”

Al’s first wife died suddenly at age 32 and the autopsy offered no clear conclusion as to the cause.  She had begun having epileptic seizures with no known record of disease or accident.  Her medical history had included several complete physical exams and no irregularities were found.  After her death, which was witnessed by her physician, doctors could not explain, or fully understand, the seizures or her death.

“As I read the autopsy, I just thought ‘that can’t be right,’” said Marg.  “That’s how the idea for the thesis evolved,” explained Marg.  “I wanted to look for answers.”

The problem identified in her 1974 thesis was “to ascertain whether epileptic seizures develop as a result of a laboratory produced lesion of the nodes ganglia of the vagus nerve, to condition to inhibition of seizures, and to theorize on sudden death.”

For her study, Marg would need 11 Squirrel monkeys and would surgically implant them with depth electrodes.  She was required to obtain and pay for the monkeys herself, as well as find a location where she could keep them and conduct her studies.   Cages with feeders and bottle holders, a restraining chair, wall board heater, humidifier and electrodes to perform the research, valued at more than $3,000 were also Marg’s responsibility to purchase.  The monkeys were shipped from Peru by an import company in New York.  Two of the 11 died in transit, leaving nine for the study.

The couple built the cages and were fortunate to be able to house the study in a space available in the lower level of the Veterans Administration

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