Bringing CNS Members Together to Make Children’s Lives Better


Phillip L. Pearl, MD

Profile written by Bruce Cohen, MD, FAAN

photo of Phillip L. Pearl, MD

Born in Baltimore, Phillip Pearl has spent his life, aside from a few years of residency training, on the East Coast of the United States. He received his undergraduate degree from Johns Hopkins and medical degree from University of Maryland, completed child neurology residency at Baylor with Ralph Feigin and Marv Fishman, a former CNS President and Hower awardee, and epilepsy fellowship at Boston Children’s with Greg Holmes. He joined the faculty of Children’s National Medical Center and rose to chief of child neurology and Professor of Neurology, Pediatrics, and Music at George Washington University (GWU). He directed medical student education in neurology at GWU and received the faculty Arnold Gold Humanism Award in 2004 and Distinguished Teacher Award in 2005. He was recruited to Boston Children’s to lead the Epilepsy Division following a national search by a committee of very distinguished faculty at Harvard Medical School. Since arriving in Boston, in addition to serving as Director of the Division of Epilepsy and Clinical Neurophysiology, William Lennox Chair and Professor of Neurology at Harvard Medical School, he initiated and directed the Pediatric Leadership Program at Harvard Medical School and has maintained a faculty appointment at the Berklee College of Music.

His contributions to the Child Neurology Society are remarkable, including the Awards Committee (chair 2004-2011), co-chair of the Jack Pellock Course in Pediatric Epilepsy (2016 – present), CNS Councilor for the East (2015-2017), and most notably President-elect and President of the Child Neurology Society (2018 – 2021). As president of the CNS from 2019-2021, he led us through perhaps the most difficult period in the history of our society. The Lifetime Achievement Award was created during his tenure as Chair of the Awards Committee. Throughout his many years in the CNS, he has expressed his deep sense of humanity through music he has played at innumerable events, most recently as co-organizer of the course, “American Creativity, Ingenuity, and Diversity” that accompanied the virtual 2020 CNS meeting combined with ICNA, representing the diversity of American culture in the arts for our international colleagues.

In addition to his contributions to CNS, he has held multiple national leadership positions, including ACGME Neurology RRC member for six years and principal author of the revised training requirements, and President of the Professors and Educators of Child Neurology (2012-2014). As PECN President, he promoted the endowment for the Philip R. Dodge Young Investigator Award and initiated the Blue Bird Circle Outstanding Training Program Director Award. He served as Section Chief of Child Neurology for the American Academy of Neurology (2017-2019) and was previously a board member of the Child Neurology Foundation. He served on the accreditation board of the UCNS and has served on the editorial boards of Annals of Neurology, Neurology, Epilepsia, Music and Medicine, Future Neurology, and Journal of Child Neurology (the latter as Associate Editor). He is an editor on the recent (sixth) edition of Swaiman’s Pediatric Neurology and currently co-senior editor with Steve Ashwal for the upcoming (seventh) edition of the venerable Swaiman test. During his CNS presidency, he had the unenviable task of renewing the debated contract with the ANA for the Annals of Neurology to serve as the society’s official journal. Phil managed to renew the journal contract and add a new societal journal to the “Annals family,” the Annals of the Child Neurology Society, and serves as Senior Associate Editor under Editor-in-Chief, Steve Roach.

Phil may be best known for his contributions to the understanding of SSADHD (succinic semialdehyde dehydrogenase deficiency). He writes, “SSADHD was not discovered by me, but it’s fair to say it discovered me!” A metabolic disorder first described by Mike Gibson PhD, Phil recounts the story of his seminal patient, with thanks to a resourceful mother, allowed Drs. Gibson and Pearl to team up circa 2000. With Dr. Gibson’s mouse model and Phil’s growing clinical database, Phil was able to describe the clinical, EEG/epilepsy, sleep, metabolic, and other features of the condition. This grew his interest from one disease into a focus on inherited metabolic epilepsies, that culminated in many presentations and ultimately the book, Inherited Metabolic Epilepsies, considered relatively authoritative in the field, and now in its 2nd edition. His SSADHD database has now more than 100 patients as well as continuous NIH funding for research in this condition since 2004, including his current R01.

As much as the field of child neurology is a focus of Phil’s life, music is part of his DNA as well. For years, members of the CNS, AAN, and AES have listened to Phil entertain, along with his band at the social events during annual meetings. In addition, he has taught numerous courses about humanity and the brain as it relates to music and musicians. Phil’s music career began with playing the drums at age six, inspired by his father, a professional jazz trumpeter and older brother, a trumpet virtuoso at the time. He was more interested, in his words, in “banging on skins and making noise than making sense out of music”. However, by age eleven, his local music teacher, a friend and colleague of his father, told his parents he “couldn’t teach Phil anything else” and recommended that they enroll him at the Peabody Conservatory of Music in the city. By then he was mastering all the percussion instruments, including xylophone, marimba, and vibraphone, and appearing on television as a musically gifted and talented youth. He ultimately enrolled at Johns Hopkins University, which acquired the Peabody and saved it from bankruptcy, and was in the first class of Hopkins students simultaneously enrolled after passing auditions to the Peabody. Phil ultimately played music professionally starting in high school and throughout college until this came to a grinding halt in medical school. In his words, he “needed more time to study and less late nights playing weddings and clubs.” However, he never gave up music as literally a second career, and has performed in the Longwood Symphony Orchestra, had an adjunct appointment as Professor of Music (as well as Neurology and Pediatrics) when at George Washington University School of Medicine, and is currently a member of the Music and Health Institute at the Berklee College of Music in Boston. His first CD, Live at Jazzmatazz, made its debut at the famous Blues Alley Jazz Club in Georgetown and its proceeds had supported the care of indigent children in the nation’s capital. Putting bands together for the annual CNS meeting, as well as seminars on neurological problems of the musical masters for CNS and ICNA, has been a particularly wonderful aspect of his career.

These accomplishments could not happen without the wonderful support of his wife, Maria Tartaglia Pearl MD, an alumna of Georgetown Medical School and currently a primary care pediatrician at Boston Children’s Hospital. Phil has five grandchildren from his older two children now in their mid-thirties, Melinda and Adam, who lost their mother at ages 11 and 9 years from breast cancer. He and Maria have two daughters, Suzanne, currently a sophomore at Georgetown University, and Natalie, a high school senior.
These remarkable accomplishments bear witness to Phil’s extraordinary ability to get things done with kindness and humility; he is truly a mensch who promotes and celebrates the successes of all and the achievements of others. Phil is simply outstanding in his approach to leadership, he is a consummate gentleman, educator, scientist, musician, and physician.