Barton Childs

Hopkins University pediatrics professor studied inherited diseases, medical ethics questions

February 25, 2010|By Jacques Kelly

Barton Childs, a Johns Hopkins University pediatrics professor emeritus who worked in the field of inherited diseases, died of pneumonia Feb. 18. He was 93.

Dr. Childs lived in Roland Park and died at Johns Hopkins Hospital.

"We have lost a giant of his or any generation of medicine," said Dr. Edward D. Miller, dean and chief executive officer of Johns Hopkins Medicine. "His medical home was at Johns Hopkins, but his influence was worldwide."

Born in Hinsdale, Ill., and raised in Chicago, he was an adopted child. He earned an undergraduate degree at Williams College and came to Baltimore in 1938 as a Johns Hopkins School of Medicine student.

According to a biography prepared at Hopkins, Dr. Childs' interest in genetics was sparked by his encounters with children with congenital anomalies at the old Harriet Lane Clinic, now the Johns Hopkins Children's Center.

He left the school in 1943 for service in the Army and had a research fellowship at Children's Hospital in Boston in 1948 and postdoctoral training at London's University College in 1952. There he studied with leading geneticists.

After returning to Baltimore, Dr. Childs became the first director of genetics in the department of pediatrics at Hopkins, where he made important contributions to the understanding of the genetic underpinnings of many diseases.

He also studied the genetics of Lesch-Nyhan syndrome, described as a rare disorder that drives its victims to uncontrollable self-mutilation.

Colleagues said his greatest contribution was his quest to integrate genetics into all of medicine. They called him a "Renaissance man of medicine." He published scientific articles on cerebral palsy, human development and evolution.

"He was also an early promoter of the advancement of women," said his wife of 26 years, Ann Pulver, a Hopkins medical professor. "He would bang on the dean's door to push for women to be promoted to full professor."

She said her husband was a modest man who insisted that his students take full credit for their scientific research.

"He did not promote himself," she said. "But he stood behind his students and helped them."

Colleagues said Dr. Childs stimulated many of his Hopkins colleagues to ponder human diseases in the context of genetics, including prostate cancer, inflammatory bowel disease and dyslexia.

He had an insatiable curiosity about human nature, which drove him to study ethical and philosophical questions beyond the field of medicine. In the 1970s, he was among the first to analyze the impact of genetic testing and counseling on patients and families.

"He was 50 years ahead of his time," said a colleague and former student, Dr. Ada Hamosh, a pediatric geneticist at Hopkins Children's. "Barton Childs was an incomparable pediatrician, a prescient geneticist and a wonderful human being. I will always cherish my memories of his pointed questions, high standards and unique style manifested in his trademark red socks."

His wife said he also wore bow ties to deter children from pulling on a longer necktie. She said she had shopped "all over the world" for his red socks and that he instructed his tailor to keep his cuffed trousers short so his trademark socks would show.

From 1972 to 1975, Dr. Childs chaired the National Academy of Sciences' national research committee in inborn errors of metabolism. The study helped lay groundwork for policies on newborn genetic-disease screening.

In 1989 he received the American Pediatric Association's highest honor, the John Howland Award.

Plans for a memorial service are incomplete.

Other survivors include two daughters, Anne Childs of Pleasanton, Calif., and Lucy Childs of Martinez, Calif. His first

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