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18th of August 2018

Health



Robert Blizzard, Who Gave Children Hormones to Grow, Dies at 94

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Robert Blizzard, Who Gave Children Hormones to Grow, Dies at 94ImageDr. Robert Blizzard in an undated photograph. He was among the first doctors to use hormones to boost children’s height.CreditNicklaus Children’s Hospital Foundation

By Randi Hutter Epstein

July 23, 2018

Robert M. Blizzard, a pediatric endocrinologist who was in the vanguard of mid-20th-century doctors who forged a new medical frontier by using hormones to boost the height of thousands of children, died on Sunday at his home in Charlottesville, Va. He was 94.

His assistant, Pam Breeden, confirmed the death.

Dr. Blizzard, who achieved global renown in his field and was long associated with the University of Virginia School of Medicine, liked to say that he had helped add 11 miles of height to the United States population. He was referring not only to his own patients, hundreds of them, but also to those helped by a national agency he founded that increased the amount of height-promoting hormone available.

Many of the recipients had been told that they would never reach four feet, but with hormone shots they climbed to upward of 5 feet 3 inches.

That success, ballyhooed in the news media, was tainted years later when some doses of human growth hormone were linked to a fatal brain disease, leading the federal authorities to ban the use of the substance when derived from cadavers — a restriction Dr. Blizzard had come to endorse — and the introduction of a successful synthetic version.

“The growth-hormone story is so important, and he was one of the pioneers,” said Dr. Thomas P. Foley Jr., emeritus professor of pediatrics at the University of Pittsburgh.

Dr. Blizzard also conducted landmark studies exploring the development of autoimmune thyroiditis, when the body attacks its own thyroid, Dr. Foley said, and he treated children born with disorders of sexual development, when genitals do not look typically male or female.

Dr. Blizzard was an audacious experimenter. In 1956 he injected a toddler, who had stopped developing, with growth hormone derived from a cow. But the child, a girl, did not grow. (Dr. Blizzard maintained that this was the first time a scientist had given a growth hormone to a patient.)

For Dr. Blizzard, the experiment’s failure proved that animal hormone does not work in humans. It fueled a race to extract growth hormone from humans, who were assumed to be a better match. While his conclusion was correct, years later he would discover that the girl in the study had suffered from a syndrome that made her body resist growth hormone, even the human kind.

Growth hormone from cadaver brains was found to work, but supplies were meager. One dead body yielded just enough growth hormone to treat one patient for one day. Most patients needed at least three shots a week for a year.

Hoping to rein in a burgeoning black market for the substance, Dr. Blizzard organized a meeting in 1961 at the National Institutes of Health and, with a few fellow hormone experts, started the National Pituitary Agency. The mission was twofold: to expand the quantity of growth-hormone therapy, and then to decide who should receive the treatment, how much and for how long.

Dr. Blizzard also promoted a theory called psychosocial dwarfism, suggesting that emotional and physical abuse causes growth-hormone secretion to plummet. In Virginia, he started a program for school nurses to measure the height of children and to investigate whether domestic abuse might be an underlying factor if children seemed abnormally small.

He found, he said, that when abused children were moved into loving foster homes, their height shot up. The biggest hurdle, he said, was in removing those children from abusive environments.

“It’s very difficult,” he recalled. “You face the parent and you can’t say that your child is psychologically abused at home. You can tell them that your child isn’t doing well psychologically at home and needs to be moved. Hopefully you do it without blaming the parents; you coax them and tell them that something has to be tried.”

In 1978 he began one of the first trials using human growth hormone as an anti-aging remedy for adult men. He noticed that some children lacking growth hormone seemed to age quickly and wondered if extra growth hormone would slow the process. He tested it on himself and a few friends, with less than convincing results.

“I learned what I wanted to learn,” he said, “which was it didn’t make your hair turn from gray to black and the girls didn’t whistle at you.”

Robert Martin Blizzard was born on June 20, 1924, in East St. Louis, Ill., the only child of Robert Watson Blizzard, a railroad engineer, and Gertrude Katherine (Oechsner) Blizzard, a homemaker. He grew up in Greenville, in Southern Illinois, not far from where Robert Wadlow, the world’s tallest man at 8 feet 11 inches, lived. (Dr. Blizzard said the proximity was a coincidence, not an inspiration for his career.)

He went to Northwestern University but left after his sophomore year to serve three years in the Army in the Pacific during World War II. He returned to complete his undergraduate studies and went on to attend what is now Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine, graduating in 1952.

By the time he started his pediatric residency at the Raymond Blank Memorial Hospital for Children in Des Moines, he had married Gladys Schmelter, an operating-room nurse. Their dream of practicing rural medicine in Montana, fishing and hunting in their spare time, was dashed when Dr. Blizzard opted to do a fellowship in pediatric endocrinology at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore. It was the beginning of an illustrious career.

He would go on to publish about 200 scientific articles, enter the Pediatric Hall of Fame (in 1998) and receive a host of awards for excellence in teaching and in pediatric care.

After his fellowship, Dr. Blizzard worked at Children’s Hospital in Columbus, Ohio, for three years before returning to Johns Hopkins in 1960 as chief of the division of pediatric endocrinology. He replaced his former mentor, Lawson Wilkins, who had retired.

Dr. Blizzard left Johns Hopkins in 1974 to join the University of Virginia School of Medicine as chairman of pediatrics. He held that position until 1987 and remained a professor there until he retired in 1993. For the next eight years, he ran the Genentech Foundation for Growth and Development at the university.

Dr. Blizzard’s successful growth hormone campaign was dealt a blow in 1984 when a patient in California who had been treated years earlier with growth hormone died of a rare brain disease at age 20. Dr. Blizzard and the Food and Drug Administration were notified of the death by Dr. Ray Hintz, a pediatrician at Stanford University, who worried that the growth hormone had transmitted the illness, Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, or C.J.D.

Dr. Blizzard dismissed those fears and was one of a few doctors to oppose a ban on human growth hormone. Within a few months, however, an additional two growth-hormone patients died of C.J.D., one of them a patient of Dr. Blizzard’s. That prompted medical experts to meet again, leading Dr. Blizzard to advocate for a ban on the use of human growth hormone except for those who needed it to survive.

The F.D.A. banned human growth hormone in 1985 and, about the same time, approved a recombinant version made by Genentech. It rocketed the company from a small start-up into a major biotechnology company.

Dr. Blizzard said that the fatal brain disease C.J.D. was not known among pediatric endocrinologists when human growth hormone therapy was introduced, and he continued to believe that it did more good than harm. So far, according to the National Institutes of Health, C.J.D. has been detected in 33 of about 7,700 children treated with human growth hormone.

Dr. Blizzard, who lived in Charlottesville for 45 years, is survived by his wife of 22 years, Polly (Moore) Blizzard; a daughter, Janice L. Blizzard; a son, R. Steven Blizzard; two stepchildren, Edward C. Wilson Jr. and Elisabeth W. Gordon; and eight grandchildren. His first wife, Gladys, died in 1994.

Dr. Blizzard was known for a warm, avuncular bedside manner and an unusual dedication to his patients — one that in turn inspired lasting loyalty. Many of his patients stayed in touch with him long after aging out of his pediatric care. Indeed, one former patient who was in his 60s and going through a health scare picked up the phone and called him first.

A version of this article appears in print on , on Page B12 of the New York edition with the headline: Robert Blizzard, Pioneer In Growth Hormones For Children, Dies at 94. Order Reprints | Today’s Paper | Subscribe

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