Dr. Vaira Pamiljans Wellner was born in Aluksne, Latvia in 1936. The youngest of four children, she spent her early childhood on her family’s dairy farm. In 1944, she and her family fled the imminent Soviet occupation of Latvia, leaving behind her oldest brother, who was in the Latvian Army at the time. They, along with so many other Latvians, spent the end of World War II in a displaced persons camp in Germany.
In 1950, Vaira, her parents, and her brother immigrated to the United States, settling in Hudson, New York. She gained her citizenship and graduated from Hudson High School as her class’s salutatorian. Through a combination of scholarships, work study, and summer jobs in the orchards near Hudson, she put herself through Boston University, earning a B.S. in biology, magna cum laude, in 1958. She went on to get her Ph.D. in biochemistry from Tufts University in 1962. It was there that she met her husband, Daniel, who had received the same degree there two years earlier. They were married in 1962, and spent the next two decades working together, first at Tufts, and moving to Cornell University Medical College in New York City in 1967. In 1974, they adopted their son, Philip.
Vaira spent her career as a researcher in the field of biochemistry. In 1974, while working as a researcher at Cornell University Medical College, Vaira and her coworkers discovered the cause of a childhood disease named 5-oxoprolinuria (or pyroglutamic aciduria), a rare hereditary disease. That discovery led other researchers to develop treatments for the disorder. After years at Cornell, she took a job at New York Hospital running a research lab in the hospital’s burn unit. There, she worked on the foundations of better treatments for severe burn victims, including the firefighters of the FDNY that the hospital served.
Vaira was an active member of the Latvian community in New York, including the Latvian Evangelical Lutheran Church in Yonkers. She and her family spent their weekends in Hillsdale, New York, where she gardened, cross-country skied, and enjoyed the countryside that was so reminiscent of her family’s home in Latvia. She loved classical music and attended concerts regularly with Daniel. She enjoyed cooking, especially with the guidance of Julia Child. While she was a student at Boston University, she was introduced to baseball and hockey, and she passed her appreciation of sports on to her son.
Some years after her retirement, Vaira began showing the early symptoms of organic brain disease. She battled its symptoms for 15 years, the last 5 of which she spent at Pine Haven nursing home in Philmont, New York, only a few miles from where she lived when she first arrived in the United States. Vaira passed away as a result of complications from a COVID19 infection.
Vaira is survived by her husband, Daniel; her son, Philip, his wife Kristina, and their daughters, Isabella, Emma, Katelyn, and Jacqueline; her brother, Janis Pamiljans; and her nieces, nephews, and their families.
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