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Obituary: John A. Pierce, former director of pulmonary and critical care, 92

Physician-scientist was division's founding director

December 1, 2017

John A. (Jack) Pierce, MD, an emeritus professor of medicine at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis, died Nov. 24, 2017, in St. Louis following a long battle with cancer. He was 92.

Pierce came to the university in 1967 as the first director of the Department of Medicine’s Division of Pulmonary and Critical Care Medicine. He also served as chief of pulmonary and critical care medicine at the St. Louis Veterans Affairs Medical Center.

In 1984, Pierce was named the inaugural Selma and Herman Seldin Professor of Medicine. He became an emeritus professor in 1993, but he continued to work with medical students and trainees until recently.

“Dr. Pierce made tremendous contributions to the School of Medicine,” said Victoria J. Fraser, MD, the Adolphus Busch Professor and head of the Department of Medicine. “He was the founding director of pulmonary and critical care medicine here at Washington University, and he created the first respiratory intensive care unit at what was then Barnes Hospital, which was one of the first such ICUs in the country.”

Pierce also launched and directed one of the first National Institutes of Health-sponsored pulmonary research training programs in the country. Under his guidance, the program produced several national leaders in pulmonary and critical care medicine.

“Those who were fortunate to know Dr. Pierce cite two impressive themes: First, he was always upbeat, supportive, insightful and humble; and second, he had an unswerving devotion to his colleagues and the institution,” said Michael J. Holtzman, MD, the current Selma and Herman Seldin Professor of Medicine and director of the Division of Pulmonary and Critical Care Medicine. “His enthusiasm and dedication had a profoundly positive influence on his colleagues and trainees, as well as his loving family.”

Pierce’s research helped clarify the roles of specific enzymes in the development of emphysema, determining that an imbalance between enzymes called proteases and anti-proteases could destroy lung tissue. He also was elected to several prestigious medical societies, including Alpha Omega Alpha, the American Society for Clinical Investigation and the Association of American Physicians.

Pierce earned his bachelor’s and medical degrees at the University of Arkansas. He served a medical internship and residency in the U.S. Public Health Service at hospitals in Galveston, Texas, and New Orleans, before joining the faculty at the University of Arkansas in 1954.

Pierce is survived by his wife of 33 years, Susan (Ellis) Pierce; his children, Sheryl, John Jr. (Margarita) and Robert (Dawn) Pierce; his wife Susan’s children, Kerstin Starzer (Daryl) and Nissa Fendler (Mark); 12 grandchildren; and four great-grandchildren.

A memorial service will be held at 5 p.m. Monday, March 12, in Moore Auditorium, 660 S. Euclid Ave., on the Washington University Medical Campus. A reception will follow in the Hearth Room on the second floor of the Farrell Learning and Teaching Center. Attendees are asked to RSVP by March 5 to 314-286-0073 or

Memorial contributions to support a lectureship in his honor may be made to: Pulmonary and Critical Care Medicine; Washington University School of Medicine; Campus Box 8052; 4523 Clayton Ave; St. Louis, Mo. 63110-1093.