John F. Kurtzke, MD, FACP, FAAN

John F. Kurtzke, MD FACP, FAAN
Member Since 1968
Falls Church, VA
Date of Death:  December 16, 2015

On December 1st, 2015, the neurology community lost one of its brightest leaders and legends when John Kurtzke died at age 89.

John was born in Brooklyn, New York, in 1926, the eldest of 5 children. He attended St. John’s University College, Brooklyn, NY, earning a BS degree Summa Cum Laude in 1948.  He continued his education at Cornell University Medical College, where he earned his MD in 1952.  He remained in New York City for neurology residency training at Kings County Hospital and the Bronx VA Medical Center under the direction of HG Wolff.  He married Margaret Nevin in 1950 and has 8 children, 21 grandchildren and 5 great-grandchildren. 

John was a World War II veteran and served in the US Navy medial corps from 1944 to1946 and in the US Naval Reserve from 1944 to 1986. He attained a rank of Rear Admiral and received the Navy Commendation Medal as well as the Meritorious Unit Commendation. John started his career in neurology as Chief of the Neurology Service at the Veterans Affairs (VA) Medical Center in Coatesville, PA, in 1956, and then came to Washington, DC, in 1963, where he became Professor of Neurology at Georgetown University and led the VA Neurology Service. He trained and mentored hundreds of neurologists through his Georgetown and Uniformed Services University teaching roles.  John was passionate about fostering collaborative clinical and research programs between medical schools and their affiliated VA Medical Centers. 

Multiple sclerosis (MS) was a major focus of John’s research career.  It was during his residency years that he coined the disability status system (DSS), the precursor to the expanded disability status scale (EDSS), as a way to quantitate morbidity progression in patients with MS. 

This scale was used in the first randomized treatment trial of MS (isoniazid vs. placebo) launched in a collaborative network of VA Medical Centers  The EDSS and corresponding Functional Systems continues to be the most commonly used disability scale for MS.  John has compared the EDSS to democracy, which is often criticized but remains the best system in place. 

Well before the era of computing and large databases, John understood the power of epidemiology to better understand neurologic disease. He mapped out the geographic gradients of MS throughout the world and defined the major risk factors for MS onset and progression. Large population-based military cohorts from World War II, the Korean Conflict and more recent generations were the basis for much of this work and have been critically important in defining the epidemiological and clinical features of MS.  John’s meticulous description of the Faroe Islands’ MS outbreak starting in the 1940s has been a major piece of evidence to support an infectious etiology for MS.

Along with Len Kurland and Milton Alter, John’s pioneering work helped launch the field of neuroepidemiology in the late1960s. He was a founding member of the American Academy of Neurology’s Neuroepidemiology Section.  

John was a prolific writer with over 550 publications. He demanded perfection in the data he assembled and the results he presented. John would go to great lengths to present all relevant data so others could inspect his analysis and confirm his findings.  He continued to energetically write and collaborate up to the last day of his life. His awards include the Department of Veterans Affairs Secretary’s Distinguished Career Award, the Charcot Award from the International Federation of MS Societies, the Lifetime Achievement Award from the Consortium of MS Centers, and the John Jay Dystel Prize for MS Research from the National MS Society and the American Academy of Neurology.  He was Consultant in Neurology to the Surgeon General of the Navy and to the National Naval Medical Center in Bethesda. He received an honorary MD and Gold Medal and Diploma of Honor from the University of Ferrara, Italy, and is an Honorary Member of the Neurological Societies of Denmark, France, and Germany.    

On a more personal note, John was always approachable, humble, and a true gentleman.  He was trustworthy, honest, and kind. He practiced the virtues of temperance and courage in his life and work. While his clinical and research career were important, he made time for his family, friends and his Catholic faith community.  He enjoyed travel and recreational activities with his children and grandchildren.

John has mentored several younger neurologists and researchers over the past few decades. One recruit from Minnesota is continuing his work and has been infused with his passion for discovery. John has and continues to have an impact on the field of neurology, epidemiology and MS. We are all indebted to John for his tremendous legacy. We will miss him dearly.

Tribute by
Mitchell Wallin, MD, MPH
Washington, DC
December 4, 2015

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