By Frederick Edelman, MD
Peter Huttenlocher, former section chief of pediatric neurology and professor emeritus of the University of Chicago School of Medicine, died on August 15, 2013 from complications of pneumonia and Parkinson’s disease at age 82.
After moving from Germany in 1949, he attended the University of Buffalo and graduated summa cum laude with a major in philosophy in 1953. He graduated magna cum laude from Harvard Medical School in 1957. After an internship at Peter Bent Brigham Hospital, he completed a residency at Boston Children’s Hospital and Massachusetts General Hospital. He then did a research fellowship at NIH. Following his training, he worked at Harvard and Yale before joining the University of Chicago in 1974.
Dr. Huttenlocher is best known for his work on synaptic pruning during development. By counting synapses in brains of patients of different ages, he documented that synaptic density peaks at 3 months in the auditory cortex, 8-12 months in the visual cortex, and 3 years in the frontal cortex before gradually decreasing by adulthood. These findings helped promote early stimulation programs to aid brain development in children.
His research interests included many areas of child neurology including MCT oil in the ketogenic diet, treatment of Reyes syndrome, description of Alpers-Huttenlocher syndrome, and new insights into Tuberous Sclerosis. His investigations helped shape pediatric neurology.
Dr Huttenlocher was an exceptional teacher. While his lectures were both clear and erudite, his forte was bedside teaching. Dr. Huttenlocher had a presence. Tall, handsome and brilliant, he examined patients patiently and compassionately. He inspired his medical students and residents to believe that clinical pediatric neurology was a challenge and a privilege. He also made neurology fun and exciting.
Dr. Huttenlocher and I first met in 1974 when we both first came to the University of Chicago. I was a nervous pediatric intern, he was an esteemed professor. During the Reyes syndrome epidemic that devastated Chicago in the mid 70s, we worked together in the ICU caring for critically ill children. He impressed me by his knowledge, his concern, and his diligence. He encouraged me to become a pediatric neurology fellow. I owe my career to his interest, guidance and support.
Dr. Huttenlocher inspired many of us who became academicians, researchers, and clinicians in child neurology. He and his wife Janellen, a professor in cognitive psychology at the University of Chicago, invited us to their home in Hyde Park and their summer home in Michigan to join their cultured community of music, science, food and conversation.
On September 28, many of his colleagues joined his family for a memorial service in Chicago. We and his wife Janellen, his son Daniel, dean of the Tech Campus at Cornell, Ana, a professor of pediatrics at the University of Wisconsin, and his son Carl, founder of Myriad Asset Mangement, celebrated his accomplishments, his renaissance interests, and his joy as a parent, grandparent, physician, scientist, and loving husband. I invite all child neurologists to honor him and his contributions to our Society.