Genial patrician, medical leader

Science: The dean emeritus of the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine once aspired to be a `country doctor in Calvert County.'

Dr. Thomas B. Turner 1902-2002

September 23, 2002|By Jacques Kelly | Jacques Kelly,SUN STAFF

Dr. Thomas Bourne Turner, dean emeritus of the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, died yesterday afternoon at his Bolton Hill home, where he had lived for nearly 60 years. He was 100.

"He just took a nap and fell asleep," said his daughter Pattie Turner Walker of Ipswich, Mass.

The medical school's dean from 1957 to 1968, he also studied infectious diseases, including polio. During World War II, he played a leading role in the Army's program to eradicate syphilis.

During his stewardship, the size of the medical school's physical plant doubled, the annual operating budget increased 500 percent, the faculty nearly doubled, and biophysics, laboratory animal medicine and biomedical engineering departments were added. The school's principal auditorium at Monument Street and Rutland Avenue is named in his honor.

"He brought a wonderful combination of knowledge of medical science and the charm of Southern Maryland to lead the Johns Hopkins through 11 years of growth and expansion," said Dr. Richard S. Ross, another dean emeritus of the School of Medicine, who lives in Baltimore. "He had a fine sense of humor and could defuse conflicts with a joke. He was a warm counselor, an old-time dean who led by charm and force of personality."

Recalled by colleagues as unaffected, engaging, unpretentious and egalitarian, he once aspired to be a country doctor.

"He was a true citizen of Baltimore and particularly of Baltimore medicine, a gracious person, collegial. Any time you were in his company it was very cheering," said Dr. Paul R. McHugh, Hopkins' former psychiatrist-in-chief and a professor of psychiatry.

"When I and others arrived, he wanted to be sure we understood what a great institution we had joined, an institution he was deeply devoted to. He just took me under his wing to make sure I met all the people in Baltimore medicine -- not only at Hopkins but at the University of Maryland as well," said Dr. McHugh.

"He was a phenomenally important figure in the history of the Johns Hopkins Medical Institutions," said Dr. Victor A. McKusick, university professor of medical genetics and former physician-in-chief.

"He made history as such an important figure in the institution. He was a very wise person to have around you. He was always very much in evidence."

Humble dreams

Born in Prince Frederick, Dr. Turner grew up in Calvert County, where his father built riverboat wharves, tobacco was king and juleps were properly made with rye whiskey. He traced his ancestry to Commander Robert Brooke, who organized the county in 1654.

Dr. Turner had planned to become a lawyer, but his father reminded him that two of his great-grandfathers had been doctors and that the county needed doctors.

"So I decided to be a doctor," he said in a 1995 Sun interview. "I was always going to be a country doctor in Calvert County. But I never made it back.

After graduating from St. John's College in Annapolis in 1921, he earned his medical degree at the University of Maryland, where he was third in his class. He never applied to the Hopkins medical school.

"I didn't have all the chemistry and physics I needed," he said in 1995. "I'm sure I never would have been accepted at Hopkins."

He arrived at Hopkins in 1927 as one of six postdoctoral fellows in the Department of Medicine. He was assigned to the syphilis unit. Research in syphilis and related diseases became his lifelong specialization.

Dr. Turner's resolve to return to Calvert County as a country doctor was cut off by an assignment to Haiti in 1929 to research yaws, a tropical skin disease. He also did plenty of country doctoring in the poor nation.

In 1932, he went to Jamaica to head a Rockefeller Foundation study of yaws. "The first year I worked very hard," he told a Sun reporter in 1989. "The second not quite so hard. The third year I found myself playing polo most of the time. I thought it was time to come home."

After leaving Jamaica, he was lured to the Rockefeller Foundation in New York for another year by Dr. Wilbur Sawyer, an eminent researcher in yellow fever.

But in 1937, Dr. Turner returned to Hopkins, became professor of microbiology and never again left, except for service with the Army during World War II.

He joined a secret group studying Nazi Germany's biological warfare capabilities, then developed the Army's venereal disease control program. He ended his service as a civil affairs officer in North Africa and Europe.

"I think of myself as an internist with a patient-doctor relationship," he said in 1995. "That's something that's just stayed with me all these years. I never quite gave up my stethoscope. I always thought I might get back to being a country doctor. But I've never made it."

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