Physician-scientist and rheumatologist John P. Atkinson, MD, the Samuel B. Grant Professor of Medicine at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis, has been awarded the Presidential Gold Medal by the American College of Rheumatology. The highest award bestowed by the organization, the medal honors a lifetime of outstanding achievements in clinical medicine, research, education and administration.
A former head of the rheumatology division in the Department of Medicine and a professor of molecular microbiology, Atkinson is a leading expert on the role of the complement system in infectious, autoimmune and inflammatory diseases. This system is an ancient set of genes and proteins that guard the body against bacterial and viral infections by promoting inflammation. In recent years, he has helped unveil the causes and pathogenesis of autoimmune rheumatic diseases such as lupus and degenerative conditions such as age-related macular degeneration.
Atkinson also is a respected teacher and mentor who has trained generations of graduate students and rheumatology fellows. A noted clinician with a talent for making difficult diagnoses, he has treated patients from all over the country who come to his clinic seeking answers for their rare inflammatory syndromes. Along with his rheumatology fellows and faculty, he helped discover and identify the mutation in a rare, genetic, blood vessel disease known as retinal vasculopathy with cerebral leukodystrophy (RCVL). The disease causes blindness, dementia and, eventually, death in middle age. Atkinson now directs the RVCL Research Center, a site of research and clinical care for people with the disease.