Obituary: Jean Holowach Thurston, professor emerita, 99
Pediatric neurologist was at forefront of research into seizure disorders
Jean Holowach Thurston, MD, a pioneering pediatric neurologist at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis, died April 29, 2017. She was 99 and about a month away from her centennial birthday.
A professor of pediatrics and of neurology, Thurston died of natural causes at a retirement home in University City, Mo.
“Jean was a true pioneer,” said Bradley L. Schlaggar, MD, PhD, the A. Ernest and Jane G. Stein Professor of Developmental Neurology and director of the university’s Division of Pediatric and Developmental Neurology. “She embodied pediatric neurology decades before the discipline emerged.”
Since midcentury, Thurston’s influential research in pediatric neurology has served as a guide for colleagues in treating childhood seizure disorders. She led long-term studies examining anticonvulsant withdrawal in pediatric patients with epilepsy, a chronic condition that causes seizures. Thurston’s research, published in 1972 in The New England Journal of Medicine, identified seizure recurrence risks. Those findings contributed to treatment therapies and diagnostic tools for childhood epilepsy, and the findings remain relevant today.
For decades, she continued to treat epilepsy patients who had participated in her clinical studies and had not gone into remission.
Besides epilepsy, Thurston published multiple studies on brain metabolism and neurochemistry that served as a foundation for subsequent research on childhood metabolic disorders.
Additionally, she published research papers on gastrointestinal diseases, hypoglycemia, pediatric cancer and, in another pioneering study in The New England Journal of Medicine, Thurston was the first to document in medical literature the association between breath holding and anemia.
“The breadth of Jean’s contributions to neurology are tremendous,” said Christina A. Gurnett, MD, PhD, a professor of neurology at Washington University. “She identified the link between breath-holding spells and anemia, determined long-term relapse rates for epilepsy patients after drug withdrawal, all while running a neurochemistry laboratory that studied Reye’s syndrome and other childhood metabolic diseases.”
Born and raised in Edmonton, Canada, Thurston earned her bachelor’s and medical degrees from the University of Alberta in Edmonton in 1938 and 1941, respectively. Afterward, she practiced pediatrics in Calgary, Canada, until 1945, when she accepted a two-year fellowship at Washington University School of Medicine.
Following the fellowship, Thurston returned to Edmonton to work in a private pediatrics practice before she permanently relocated to St. Louis in 1949 to accept a faculty appointment in the Department of Pediatrics.
She became a professor of pediatrics in 1975 and a professor of neurology in 1982. She was named a professor emerita in 1987. However, Thurston continued research, establishing her own neurochemistry lab, publishing her last paper at age 78 and attending professional seminars until a year before her death.
“Her presence in the front row of many local and national conferences will be missed greatly,” Gurnett said. “She never stopped learning. At age 88, she mastered email, and at age 93, she completed human-studies training so she could start a new study. Jean inspired generations of physician-scientists through her enthusiasm and continual love for learning.”
Thurston consulted with the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and served as a director of several pediatric clinics and programs. She received dozens of awards, including the Fomon-Peterson Founders Award from the Midwest Society for Pediatric Research in 1990 and the first lifetime achievement award by the Child Neurology Society, in 2004.
She is credited as a respected mentor and, as a testament to the love and respect people felt for her, Thurston retained the services of the same research associate for nearly four decades.
Thurston is survived by eight nieces. She was preceded in death by her husband of 38 years, Donald L. Thurston, MD, a Washington University professor of pediatrics and a professor emeritus of pediatrics. The couple collaborated on multiple research projects.
The School of Medicine is planning a memorial service in June, with details to be announced.
Memorial donations may be made to the School of Medicine’s Division of Pediatric and Developmental Neurology. For details, please contact Lori Nichols at firstname.lastname@example.org.