Pioneering pathologist wins coveted award

October 23, 2017
Dr. Lucy Balian Rorke-Adams with a skull.

As a teenager, Dr. Lucy Balian Rorke-Adams aspired to the operatic stage. But when a scheduled audition fell through, she turned to her other love: medicine.  

Raised in St. Paul, Rorke-Adams earned four degrees, including her M.D. in 1957, from the University of Minnesota. She went on to pioneer the field of pediatric neuropathology, holding prestigious clinical and academic positions at Philadelphia General Hospital, Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia (CHOP), and the University of Pennsylvania over an illustrious five-decade career. In 2010 CHOP established the Lucy Balian Rorke-Adams Chair in Pediatric Neuropathology.

Trailblazer par excellence

Rorke-Adams built that field on her first-hand knowledge and insights into the genetics and formation of the nervous system. For example, she used chromosomal characteristics to distinguish a group of rare but deadly childhood tumors from similar growths. And she recognized the importance of using neural development in lower animals to study human “migration disorders,” which result when embryonic neural cells fail to reach their normal anatomic destination.

“I compared what was found in fruit flies and the roundworm C. elegans and hypothesized that development of the human brain is similar to what goes on in these lower forms,” says Rorke-Adams.

An expert on shaken baby syndrome, Rorke-Adams described a method of removing the brain and spinal cord in continuity from a suspected victim without causing damage that could mimic—or mask—damage from shaking.

Not a shy person

During her 1981 presidential address to the American Association of Neuropathologists, Rorke-Adams proposed a re-thinking of how certain childhood brain tumors should be classified. This aroused the ire of a powerful colleague who had shaped then-current thinking about the tumors. But she persisted and achieved her goal of spurring research into the issue.  

“I was always questioning what I was being told,” says Rorke-Adams. “If there were conflicting data that didn’t correspond with the ‘party line,’ I always tried to bring things into concordance. And I wasn’t shy about asking authorities to take a look at the data and subject their own ideas to experimentation.”

On November 1, Rorke-Adams received the Outstanding Achievement Award, the University of Minnesota’s highest alumni accolade.