Lives of the fellows

George Widmer Thorn

b.15 January 1906 d.26 June 2004
MD Buffalo(1929) Hon MA Harvard(1942) Hon LLD Dalhousie(1950) Hon ScD Temple(1951) Hon LLD Queens(1954) Hon DSc Suffolk(1961) Hon DSc Wooster(1963)

George W Thorn, a giant in academic medicine for nearly 60 years, was an outstanding physician-scientist, educator and administrator, as well as a caring doctor, whose life was dominated by five characteristics - inquisitiveness, discipline, resourcefulness, sharp observational skills and compassion. He was born in Buffalo, New York state, and received his medical training at the University of Buffalo School of Medicine. During medical school he began his examination of the role of the adrenal cortex in health and disease. He prepared cortin, an adrenal extract that maintained normal growth in adrenalectomised animals, the first adrenal extract for potential human use. Thus began his career as a leading scientist in the field of endocrinology. He made many of the original observations about the role of the adrenal cortex and devoted his efforts to understanding the causes and treatment of Addison's disease.

After serving on the faculties at Ohio State University and Johns Hopkins Medical School, Thorn was appointed physician in chief at the Peter Bent Brigham Hospital (now Brigham and Women's Hospital) and as the Hersey professor of the theory and practice of medicine at Harvard Medical School in 1942, at the youthful age of 36. He served in those capacities for nearly three decades and transformed both the department of medicine and the entire hospital from a small group of physicians in a traditional medical practice to one of the best academic health centres in the United States.

Under Thorn's able leadership, both the department of medicine and critical areas of science were developed. He innately understood people's strengths and utilised that knowledge to enlist their help in tackling complex medical administrative tasks. Because of his interest in the adrenal cortex and the adrenal gland, by the middle of the last century the Peter Bent Brigham Hospital had flourished as a major force in the treatment of adrenal disorders, drawing patients from throughout the world. Some key observations at that time include the role of changes in eosinophil counts in understanding the integrity of the adrenal gland (the 'Thorn test'), the role of adrenal steroids in maintaining normal water homeostasis, and the treatment of adrenal insufficiency with implants of deoxycorticosterone acetate (DOCA) pellets.

Outside the field of endocrinology, a highlight of Thorn's many accomplishments included bringing the field kidney dialysis machine to the United States. In 1954, members of his department of medicine, led by John Merrill, and collaborators in the department of surgery, led by Joseph Murray, performed the first human kidney transplant with Thorn's full support and enthusiasm.

Thorn recognised the need to expand the infrastructure to support effective patient care and clinical research, leading to the creation of a general medical clinic at the Peter Bent Brigham Hospital in the 1960s. His resourcefulness was further evident in his understanding the need to elicit the support of private donors for biomedical research. It was largely through his efforts that the Howard Hughes Medical Institute was established.

Among Thorn's myriad accomplishments was his role as one of the original editors of Harrison's Textbook of medicine. However, perhaps one of his most endearing qualities - and one he would have likely placed first on his list of achievements - was his compassionate treatment of patients. He was the consummate physician. He also trained hundreds of individuals in the art as well as the science of medicine.

Thorn remained remarkably physically fit throughout his life. One incident in particular exemplified his commitment to good health. At a Thorn Center for Endocrine Disorders advisory board meeting in 1994, he seemed a little anxious. "I have a tennis match in an hour and a half," he said. "That's incredible for one of your vintage," I replied. "No," he said. "It won't be a very competitive match. I'll lose. But just wait till next year." "Why?" I asked, incredulous. "Then I'll be 90 - and the youngest kid in my group. I'll beat them all!"

George W Thorn was married twice. His first wife, Doris Weston, died in 1984. His second wife, Claire Hyman Steinert, died in 1990. He is survived by his son, Weston, his stepdaughter, Susan Poverman and a stepson, Alan Steinert. He also had two grandchildren, Nicholas and Tyler. He died of respiratory failure at the age of 98.

George H Williams

[Brit.med.J.,329 2004 405; The Lancet 364 2004 496; The Howard Hughes Medical Institute (www.hhmi.org/news/thorn_obit.html); The Whitaker Foundation (www.whitaker.org/news/thornobit.html)]

(Volume XII, page web)

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