Dr. Thomas H. Shepard, a University of Washington pediatrician and scientist whose work shaped the study of birth defects — including recent confirmation of the devastating effects of the Zika virus — died Monday. He was 93.
Dr. Thomas H. Shepard, a University of Washington pediatrician and scientist known as a pioneer in teratology, the study of birth defects, died Monday at a local hospital, family members said. He was 93.
His influence in his field loomed large. It ranged from the founding of the nation’s oldest fetal-tissue laboratory, in 1964 at the UW, to the creation of “Shepard’s criteria,” the set of rules published in 1994 used to discern whether an outside agent could be a teratogen — something that would disrupt normal development in the womb.
The criteria were cited as recently as April, when the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention confirmed that there was no doubt the Zika virus exploding across Latin America and the Caribbean caused microcephaly and other serious birth defects.
Sonja Rasmussen, president of the Teratology Society, of which Dr. Shepard was a charter member and past president, cited the Zika decision as just one of his many contributions.
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“Dr. Shepard has had a monumental and long-lasting impact on the field of teratology — as a scientist, mentor, teacher and colleague,” she said. “He will be missed.”
He spent his entire academic career at the UW and at Seattle Children’s, though he was a visiting investigator at sites including the Carnegie Institution in Washington, D.C., and at the University of Copenhagen, according to a 2009 tribute by friend and colleague Dr. Alan G. Fantel, a pediatrician and geneticist at the UW.
Dr. Shepard’s medical practice combined pediatrics, endocrinology, dysmorphology and teratology, and he treated many patients from infancy through adulthood, Fantel noted. He had a keen interest in achondroplasia, a form of short-limbed dwarfism, and in phenylketonuria, or PKU, for which nearly all newborns are now tested, as well as in many other disorders.
He authored 13 editions of the Catalog of Teratogenic Agents, a comprehensive compilation of chemical and environmental agents that can cause birth defects.
Dr. Godfrey Oakley, a student of Shepard’s who went on to head the CDC’s birth-defects division, called Shepard a “giant” in the field.
“His book that listed chemicals and their effects on causing birth defects has influenced the clinical care of millions of pregnant women around the world,” Oakley said.
Dr. Shepard was born in Milwaukee, Wis., in 1923. He received an undergraduate degree from Amherst College in 1945 and his medical degree from the University of Rochester in 1948.
He married Alice Kelly in 1946 and had three daughters, Ann Uomoto, Betsy Hardin and Donna Richards. Kelly died in 2004 after a long illness. In 2006, when he was 83, he married Gretchen McCoy, who survives.
Dr. Shepard, who lived in Bellevue, was a fierce and dedicated sailor, recalled daughter Donna Richards, of Portland, Ore. The family built a cabin on Shaw Island in the late 1950s and visited frequently.
“As far as sailing goes, he could be very charming, telling us all we’d only be on the lake for an hour,” Richards recalled with a laugh. “Then as soon as we got on the boat, he’d turn into Captain Bly and not let us go back for hours.”
Dr. Shepard was also an avid artist who worked primarily in watercolor.
Despite his considerable accomplishments, he was always quite modest, friends and colleagues recalled.
“He was an understated guy,” his nephew, Michael Shepard, recalled. “He didn’t walk around telling people how important he was.”
Funeral arrangements are pending.
In addition to his wife, Dr. Shepard is survived by his daughters, six grandchildren and five great-grandchildren.