Dr. John W. Griffin, Hopkins neurology expert, dies

Dr. John W. "Jack" Griffin, an internationally acclaimed expert on diseases of the peripheral nervous system and founding director of the Johns Hopkins Brain Science Institute who had also headed the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine's department of neurology, died Saturday of bladder cancer at Gilchrist Hospice Care.

The Cockeysville resident was 69.

"Hopkins, and the greater scientific world, has lost a great leader. His professional and personal commitment to his patients and research were unparalleled," Dr. Edward D. Miller, dean of the faculty of the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine and CEO of Johns Hopkins Medicine, said in a news release Tuesday.

He added: "Few members of the Johns Hopkins Medicine community have been as admired professionally — and liked personally — as was Jack Griffin. His death is a great loss to the world of science and to those nearly countless number of friends here at Hopkins and around the globe."

Dr. Guy M. McKhann was founding chairman of the department of neurology at Hopkins and also founded the Brain Science Institute there.

"Jack was the epitome of a clinician scientist, a world's expert on diseases of the peripheral nerve, as occurs in diabetes, HIV disease and the Guillain-Barre syndrome," said Dr. McKhann. "He was particularly interested in disease mechanisms and approaches to therapy, and his laboratory was a mecca for young people to train."

Dr. Griffin was born and raised in Lincoln, Neb., where he graduated in 1960 from Lincoln Southeast High School. He was the son of a banker and cared for his mother, who used a wheelchair because of multiple sclerosis.

He was a 1963 Phi Beta Kappa graduate of Grinnell College in Iowa, with a double major in Russian and chemistry.

Dr. Griffin earned his medical degree in 1968 from Stanford University, where he also completed an internship and residency in internal medicine.

While at Stanford, Dr. Griffin met Diane Edmund, a medical school classmate, who became his wife in 1965.

"I was seated between 'Henretig' and 'Edmund,'" Dr. Griffin explained in a letter some time ago to his two sons, Erik E. Griffin of Columbia and C. Todd Griffin of Brooklyn, N.Y.

"I charmed her on our first trip to the supply room (to get salmon sperm for DNA isolation) by commenting that 'she sure walked fast for a girl.' She rolled her eyes in a fashion that I thought meant that she was dazzled (I know better now)," he wrote.

The couple came to Hopkins in 1970, where Dr. Griffin was a neurological resident and his wife was a postdoctoral fellow in virology and infectious diseases. There, they pursued tandem careers for the next 40 years.

Except for a period when Dr. Griffin was a clinical associate at the National Institutes of Neurological and Communicative Disorders and Stroke in Bethesda from 1973 to 1975, he spent his remaining years in East Baltimore, until stepping down earlier this month as director of the Brain Science Institute.

Dr. Griffin was named head of the department of neurology and neurologist-in-chief of Hopkins Hospital in 1999.

During his tenure as head of neurology, he oversaw expansion of what was already the nation's largest neurological critical care unit to a 22-bed facility for the treatment of patients with severe strokes, traumatic brain injuries, intractable seizures, gunshot wounds, and those requiring recuperation from significant brain or back surgeries.

Dr. Griffin stated in a 2002 interview with Hopkins Medicine's Dome that the hospital had no peer in neurological care.

"There is no other comparable department" for neurological treatment in the country, he said. "The science of neurological care has grown up, and it makes an enormous difference in outcomes. Lives are saved, and hospital stays shortened. This new unit provides a setting where the most advanced treatments can be brought to bear."

In addition to his work and research, Dr. Griffin held professorships in neurology, neuroscience and pathology at the Johns Hopkins University Medical School.

Dr. Griffin headed the department of neurology until 2006, when he stepped down because of poor health. He recovered a year later, and became the founding director of the Brain Science Institute, and the same year he received the Johns Hopkins Award for outstanding service to the university.

Dr. Griffin's research and work in the study of axons, the nerve fibers that conduct electrical impulses, and the Schwann cell, which covers and protects axons, was considered so significant that a two-day symposium, "The Friends of the Axon, the Schwann Cell and Jack Griffin," was held earlier this year at Hopkins and brought an international gallery of scientists to East Baltimore.

"He liked to call himself a permanent student and loved science. He had an extended curiosity, whether it was clinical work, medicine, poetry, literature or sports," said Dr. Justin C. McArthur, current director of the department of neurology at Hopkins, where he is also neurologist-in-chief. "I have known him for 25 years — initially as a teacher, mentor and friend, and for the last 10 years have been best friends."

Dr. McArthur referred to a quote from Goethe — "Who is the happiest of men? He who values the merits of others, and in their pleasure takes joy, even as though t'were his own" — that was used for the symposium as an apt description of his friend.

"It was emblematic of Jack's view of the world — he was unusually modest and didn't like the limelight. He gained personal satisfaction from helping and mentoring others rather than mentioning his own accomplishments," Dr. McArthur said. "Many of us in medicine would strive for one or two accomplishments in our career; he had many."

Dr. McKhann recalled Dr. Griffin being able to "ask a question about a problem and finding a new way of thinking about it" and then sharing it with his staff. "He turned ideas over to other people, which inspired enormous loyalty among his troops," he said.

Colleagues recalled his Midwestern demeanor and ability to make others laugh when he told hilarious stories.

Dr. Griffin was a music collector, especially that of blues guitarists from the 1920s and 1930s. He enjoyed mountain biking and hiking the Northern Central Trail.

A memorial service will be held at 2 p.m. Wednesday at St. Mark's Lutheran Church, 1900 St. Paul St.

In addition to his wife, who is professor and chair of the W. Harry Feinstone Department of Molecular Microbiology and Immunology at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, and his two sons, he is survived by a granddaughter.

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