Before Joseph W. Eschbach and his research partner first strolled into the lab to work with anemic sheep, humans with kidney disease, weakened...

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Before Joseph W. Eschbach and his research partner first strolled into the lab to work with anemic sheep, humans with kidney disease, weakened by anemia, could barely descend a flight of stairs.

But in the late 1970s and early 1980s, Dr. Eschbach and Dr. John Adamson, working at the University of Washington, made a breathtaking discovery: They could correct anemia in their test subjects by infusing them with the hormone that instructs bone marrow to make more red blood cells.

Dr. Eschbach’s research led to the development of hormone treatments that have helped ease the suffering of more than a million human kidney patients worldwide over the past 20 years.

“It was a remarkable achievement,” said Joyce F. Jackson, president and CEO of Northwest Kidney Centers. “And what’s really remarkable was that he wasn’t just a researcher; he was still taking care of patients every day.”

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Dr. Eschbach, 74, a devoted physician, husband and father, a prolific writer and a passionate advocate for research and his patients, died Sept. 7 at home in Bellevue, after a battle with lung cancer. He did not smoke.

Dr. Eschbach was born in Detroit in 1933, and graduated from Otterbein College in Westerville, Ohio, where he met his future wife, MaryAnn. After his medical school and a residency in Seattle, the couple settled in the Northwest.

From the beginning, he was a physician who put patients first, friends and colleagues say. In 1964, Dr. Eschbach directed a dialysis center — the first to train patients to operate kidney machines at home.

“His entire career was really based on one thing: what’s best for people,” said Dr. John Stivelman, chief medical officer of Northwest Kidney Centers.

When his mentor, Dr. Belding Scribner, challenged Dr. Eschbach to find a way to correct the anemia, Dr. Eschbach accepted the challenge.

Convinced that perhaps a hormone stimulated by the kidney kept healthy people from being anemic, he and his partner went to work.

“He was very creative,” said his wife. “He knew there were people who thought he was foolish and barking up the wrong tree. But he was open-minded and a very determined hard worker.”

After experiments that Stivelman called “elegant,” the then-fledgling biotechnology company Amgen cloned the gene for the human hormone erythropoietin. Dr. Eschbach helped lead clinical trials that treated kidney patients with the resulting drug, Epogen, which eventually proved 97 percent successful in treating renal anemia.

“Joe got to see, during his lifetime, the enormous and profound benefit of his contribution to hundreds of thousands of people,” Stivelman said. “How many people ever get that kind of gratification?”

Yet even after he changed the face of kidney care, Dr. Eschbach — ever gracious and humble, and a man of deep faith who was an elder at Newport Presbyterian Church in Bellevue — remained focused on relieving suffering. He worked at the Minor and James Medical clinic, led the Northwest Kidney Centers as a trustee and senior research adviser, and continued to see patients, often on his own time. Earlier this summer, the centers helped endow a professorship in kidney research at the UW in his name.

Dr. Eschbach is survived by his wife of 51 years, MaryAnn; his children, Cheryl Eschbach and her husband, John Duffield, of Atlanta, Annbeth Eschbach and her husband, Patrick Parcells, of New York City, Joseph Charles Eschbach and his wife, Deanne, of Bellevue; his sister, MargaBeth Cibulka, of East Lansing, Mich.; and five grandchildren.

A celebration of his life will be at 2 p.m. Sept. 30 at First Presbyterian Church of Bellevue, 1717 Bellevue Way N.E.

In lieu of flowers, donations may be made to: the Northwest Kidney Foundation, P.O. Box 3035, Seattle, WA 98122, for the Kidney Research Institute; Newport Presbyterian Church, P.O. Box 53385, Bellevue, WA 98105-3385; or Otterbein College, Development Office, One Otterbein College, Westerville, Ohio, 43081, for the science-building fund.

Craig Welch: 206-464-2093 or cwelch@seattletimes.com