The Legacy of Kira Sergievsky: Her Health Inspired Sergievsky Center


Alan Dove

Kira Sergievsky was from a family whose history reads like a novel, but people who remember her from her time at Columbia only knew her as an unassuming clerk in the Department of Neurology medical library. She died Jan. 17, 2019, in Florida after a lifetime of severe epilepsy and partial paralysis. She was 80 years old.

Ms. Sergievsky, who inspired the establishment of Columbia’s Gertrude H. Sergievsky Center in 1977, was the daughter of a swashbuckling pilot and a shy heiress. Surgery intended to treat her severe epilepsy left her partially paralyzed, prompting her parents to found the Sergievsky Center, named for Kira Sergievsky’s mother, to study epilepsy and other neurological diseases and develop better treatments.

Richard Mayeux, MD, who is now the Sergievsky Professor of Neurology, Psychiatry, and Epidemiology and chair of the Department of Neurology, knew Ms. Sergievsky when he was a neurology resident. “I never knew her last name, but most of the other residents also knew her,” says Dr. Mayeux. He did not know about her influence on his field until after he had been appointed to the Sergievsky professorship decades later.

Ms. Sergievsky’s father, Boris Sergievsky, served in the Russian Air Force in World War I, then fought on the Tsarist side in the Russian Civil War before leaving for America. While working as a test pilot for fellow expatriate and former school friend Igor Sikorsky, he delivered an airplane to the Hochschild family, which had a vast mining fortune. The young Gertrude Hochschild fell hard for the dashing former Tsarist pilot, and the two soon married.

Their son, Orest Sergievsky, became a famous ballet dancer. Kira Sergievsky’s disability limited her movement and speech, but she excelled at her work in the medical library. “She was very friendly, very smart, and always very helpful in the library,” Dr. Mayeux says. During his residency, Dr. Mayeux, a chronic insomniac while on call at the hospital, would give lists of books and journals to the head librarian for the nights he was on call, and Ms. Sergievsky would help retrieve them. Between consults Dr. Mayeux would find his materials waiting for him in the reading room, along with a cookie.

Witnessing their daughter’s struggles, Kira Sergievsky’s parents decided to use their money to help fight epilepsy, with an emphasis on understanding the condition and finding better ways to prevent and treat it. Mervyn Susser, MB, BCH, chair of Columbia’s epidemiology department at the time, persuaded them to set up the Sergievsky Center as an independent unit within the university, with its director answering directly to the dean. “I took over after Mervyn retired,” says Dr. Mayeux, who adds that the Sergievsky family has been as generous in approving the direction of the center as in funding it. “I told the family that I was interested in continuing the work on epilepsy, but we were going to broaden the center’s perspective, and they were very happy with that.”

The Gertrude Sergievsky Center now integrates clinical, epidemiological, and genetic research that focuses on diseases of the brain and nervous system throughout the life cycle.