Wednesday, April 2, 2014

Tangier Islanders Make Medical History

Written by Dr. Arthur Fournier

Tangier Island - Aerial 
Photography By: Neil Kaye
To pass their Boards in medicine, doctors in training must study the rarest and most arcane diseases. When this blogger studied for his boards in 1976, arguably the most esoteric of them all was Tangier Disease – a rare genetic disease technically known as Familial Alpha – Lipoprotein Deficiency. According to the texts, the disease leads to low blood levels of the "good cholesterol", HDL, with cholesterol building up in cells that cause difficulty in the ability of peripheral nerves to function. Naively, I assumed the disease derived its name from the eponymous North African port city. Then, after passing my Boards, I came to the Eastern Shore to work for Eastern Shore Rural Health. It was then I learned the "inside story"of Tangier Disease.

Photo of Teddy Laird
in an article written by
John Pruitt
The year was 1959. It was a time when almost all children had their tonsils taken out, on the unproven theory that their removal would reduce the frequency of strep throats and other upper respiratory infections. The children of Tangier Island were no exception. Dr. Thomas Edmonds Sr., an Ear Nose and Throat specialist from Accomack traveled regularly to Tangier for this purpose. One child, however, Teddy Laird, at that time five years old, had tonsils that proved extraordinary – they were huge and they were bright orange! Intrigued, Dr. Edmonds sent the tonsils to the National Institutes of Health. There they discovered that the tonsils were full of foamy cells containing cholesterol. Scientists from the National Institutes of Health descended upon Tangier Island, convinced that the small number of families who founded the island and intermarried there had created conditions that would result in rare genetic diseases. In actuality, only Teddy and his sister were discovered to have the telltale orange tonsils! In truth, there is little clinical significance to this disease other than the orange tonsils, but the rarity of the condition and the exotic history of Tangier Island captured the imagination of medical researchers and academicians. To date, only approximately 100 patients with Tangier Disease have been identified worldwide. The claim to fame, however, for the first cases reported belongs forever to Teddy and his sister on Tangier Island.

Teddy S. Laird

October 13th, 1955 - April 18th, 2011
Obituary: Dateline – Kinards, SC Teddy S. Laird, age 55 of 33389 Hwy 76 died Monday, April 18, 2011 at home. He was born at Tangier Island, VA and was the son of Peggy Parks Laird of the home and the late Gladden Laird. He was a former employee of Ingles and a member of Joanna Church of God. Surviving is his wife, Amelia Nabors Laird of the home; four stepsons, Reggie Nabors and Kim of Joanna; Johnnie Bunton of Joanna; Eric Bunton and Karen of Conway; Chris Hightower and Nina of Conway and seven grandchildren. He was predeceased by a sister, Elaine Evans. A memorial service will be conducted on Wednesday, April 20, 2011 at 2:00pm at Joanna Church of God. The family will receive friends Wednesday, April 20, 2011 from 1:00 to 2:00pm at the church. Condolences may be expressed to the family at Gray Funeral Home of Clinton.

Lisa Seachrist Chiu, "When a Gene Makes you Smell Like a Fish"


  1. Teddy was a kind and gracious man. I met him in 1984 while on E&M research at the NIH. He autographed my then-current edition of Harrison's: "Teddy Laird - the first one." S. Farrow, MD, MBA-ACE, CPE

  2. In 1984 I was a student who participated in a program that NIH had called the "Normal Volunteer Program"-healthy college students would live at the clinical center, have the opportunity to do research and in turn make themselves available as research controls for clinical protocols. I arrived at NIH during a record breaking cold spell and was shown my room and introduced to my roommate-Teddy. He had a strong accent; I asked him where he was from and he stated: "Tangier's Island!". I asked him if that was off the coast of Morocco. He told me it was in the Chesapeake Bay. We would be roommate for almost 4 months; I would learn that he was a waterman on the bay, play cards with his mother who was in a room down the hallway, meet his sister (also there to be studied), bring him on outings to Bish Thompsons bar and seafood restaurant, share stories with him and make him listen to my Barbara Streisand obsession-I played the theme from "Yentl" over and over again(in most ways I was a normal 25 year old, liked to party and do things my contemporaries did, the Streisand thing being an exception)-during those months. Only once did he threaten to throw my cassette player out of the window in frustration over have to listen to Barbara over and over again. Teddy would join myself and my fellow students on occasion. Teddy was a lovely man-kind, pure in the most genuine sense, and I have thought about him a lot over the years of my life. I am thinking of him now-in 2019-and how I continue to learn from the generosity of his nature.