Lives of the fellows

Harold Osler Conn

b.16 November 1930 d.9 October 2011
BS Michigan(1946) MD(1950) MS Yale(1972) FRCP(1995)

Harold O Conn was an internationally-renowned hepatologist and a 50-year faculty member of the Yale University School of Medicine, Connecticut, USA. Conn was a pioneer in the pathogenesis and treatment of advanced liver disease, primarily in the field of portal hypertension. He authored more than 200 peer-reviewed articles, including major contributions to the accuracy of serum ammonia measurements, the first description of spontaneous bacterial peritonitis, the evaluation of prophylactic portacaval shunts in clinical trials, the radiologic and endoscopic evaluation of oesophageal varices, and the treatment of portal systemic encephalopathy with lactulose. He served as president of the American Association for the Study of Liver Diseases from 1972 to 1973.

He had a unique sense of humour, often expressed in the editorials he was frequently asked to write. These topics ranged from clinical study design, to assessment of the accuracy or safety of diagnostic procedures, including the effectiveness of liver biopsy in liver cancer, and the use and risks of the Sengstaken-Blakemore tube for the treatment of bleeding oesophageal varices.

Born in Newark, New Jersey, Conn was the fourth of four children of Joseph Henry Conn and Dora Conn née Kobrin, second generation American parents who had emigrated from southeastern Europe. In high school he was an all-state swimmer. He subsequently earned BS and MD degrees from the University of Michigan, where he was supported by his older brother, Jerome Conn, also a physician and faculty member at its medical school who later discovered Conn’s syndrome (primary aldosteronism).

Conn was an intern at the Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore, became chief resident at Yale-New Haven Hospital and then trained in hepatology with Gerald Klatskin at Yale, one of the early founders of the discipline. Conn subsequently established a separate liver unit at the West Haven Veterans Hospital, where he trained many future leaders in the field, including Guadalupe Garcia-Tsao, Andy Blei, Colin Atterbury, Mario Chojkier, David Kravetz, Simon Bar-Meir, Milton Mutchnick and Michael Phillips, among others.

One of his final professional accomplishments was the publication in 1993 of Histopathology of the liver (New York, Oxford University Press) by Klatskin and Conn. Klatskin had died nine years earlier and had commissioned Conn to complete what he considered to be his most important life’s work and a benchmark reference for the histopathological diagnosis of chronic liver diseases. At about the same time, Conn was diagnosed with normal pressure hydrocephalus (NPH), having been erroneously diagnosed a decade earlier with Parkinson’s disease. The condition had greatly affected his ability to walk or think clearly. After surgery at age 78, he made a remarkable recovery and became a passionate spokesperson for NPH awareness, appearing on national radio and TV programmes and writing many meaningful articles about the prevalence and heredity of NPH, as well as providing helpful advice to patients and their families.

Over the years Conn received many invitations to lecture nationally and internationally, resulting in membership of American Airlines’ two-million mile club in 1990.

He was a workaholic who spent countless hours researching articles. He is the namesake for the Conn Center, a classroom at Yale’s Cushing/Whitney Medical Library. He was also an avid squash player and contributed the Conn Family Court to Yale’s Brady Squash Center.

Conn, always the humourist, was also well-known for his annual holiday cards, which each season incorporated the family name in the greeting in a new way. He was survived by his wife of 60 years, Marilyn Barr Conn, who often assisted him with his writings, three children, Chrysanne, Steven and Dorianne, and six grandchildren.

James L Boyer

[Hepatology, Vol.55, No.2, 2012, p.658-9 – accessed 12 May 2016; New Haven Register 12 October 2011 – accessed 12 May 2016; Hydrocephalus Association – accessed 12 May 2016]

(Volume XII, page web)

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