National News

Jerold F. Lucey, Innovator in Premature Births, Dies at 91

Dr. Jerold F. Lucey, a pioneer in pediatrics who championed innovations that improved the survival and health of premature babies, died on Dec. 10 at his home in Osprey, Florida. He was 91.

Posted Updated

, New York Times

Dr. Jerold F. Lucey, a pioneer in pediatrics who championed innovations that improved the survival and health of premature babies, died on Dec. 10 at his home in Osprey, Florida. He was 91.

His wife, Ingela Lucey, said the cause was a stroke. He had spent most of his career at the University of Vermont College of Medicine in Burlington.

Lucey spearheaded the introduction of new treatments for fragile newborns. He also energized the field of pediatrics by encouraging national and international collaborations and emphasizing that procedures had to be backed by documented evidence of their effectiveness.

In the 1960s, he conducted a randomized trial of light therapy to treat jaundice in premature babies, leading to the wide adoption of the technique. A light therapy chamber he constructed was displayed at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington.

Lucey was also influential in the introduction of other important neonatal therapies, including using surfactant, which coats the air sacs, to help the struggling lungs of premature babies; cooling the brains of babies to prevent damage from asphyxiation; and monitoring babies’ oxygen levels through the skin, rather than through blood drawn repeatedly from arteries.

Lucey was also editor-in-chief of the journal Pediatrics for 35 years. He greatly expanded its circulation, creating editions in Brazil, India, China and elsewhere, and began posting articles online early in the digital age, said Dr. Lewis R. First, the current editor-in-chief.

Lucey was the recipient of numerous medical awards and honors and was inducted into the Institute of Medicine of the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine.

In 1980, he created an annual conference, “Hot Topics in Neonatology,” which highlighted controversial issues, emphasized rigorous research and encouraged vigorous debate.

“He had this amazing ability to spot the important next thing,” said Dr. Jeffrey D. Horbar, chief executive and scientific officer of the Vermont Oxford Network, another innovation of Lucey’s.

The network was founded in 1988 after Lucey had returned from a sabbatical in England inspired to start a system under which hospitals in different locations could collaborate on randomized trials, share data and learn to apply research results to their patients.

Horbar said the Vermont Oxford Network now includes health professionals at more than 1,200 neonatal units around the world.

First said, “I don’t think there’s a pediatrician who doesn’t realize that some aspect of their career is because of a contribution that Jerry Lucey made.”

Jerold Francis Lucey was born on March 26, 1926, in Holyoke, Massachusetts, to Jeremiah and Pauline Lucey. His mother was 17 at the time; his father, 18. Financially unstable, the family was repeatedly uprooted, moving from neighborhood to neighborhood.

“His father was a big, big gambler,” Ingela Lucey said. “He would come home and say, ‘I just lost the house, we have to move out.’ Or ‘I just won a bowling alley.'”

In an oral history interview for the American Academy of Pediatrics in 2002, Jerold Lucey said he was 6 when he decided he was going to be a physician.

“There were a bunch of little kids playing and somebody said, ‘Let’s play doctor,'” he recalled. “I said to the guy who proposed it, ‘What’s doctor?’ He said, ‘Oh, we all take our clothes off and the doctor examines us.’ I was a modest little guy, so I said, ‘Well, I will be the doctor.'” Lucey shifted in and out of private and public schools. At about 12, during a rocky period in his parents’ marriage, while they were working for a bookstore, he went to live for a few years with an uncle, a leading general practitioner in Northampton, Massachusetts. “I loved the respect he got,” Lucey said.

He attended Dartmouth College and had spent two years in the Navy when he was admitted to New York University’s medical school after at least a half-dozen other schools had rejected him.

The summer before medical school, he joined a biological laboratory on Mount Desert Island, Maine. One project there set the stage for his interest in babies.

Researchers were confounded because the baby seals they were studying would not eat, apparently because they had been separated from their mothers while still nursing and were not yet able to swallow fish. Some of the seals died. But Lucey saved the others by putting fish in a blender and feeding the seals the liquefied result.

He first worked with premature babies in medical school when a doctor studying urination in the infants needed an adult to drink the same amount of milk as the babies did. “'It’s a piece of cake,’ I thought. ‘I love milk,'” Lucey recalled.

But the milk was actually formula, he said, and the taste nauseated him. Still, he said, “I thought what a whole new world these little tiny babies were. Everything is different about them.”

After medical school, Lucey had an internship at Bellevue Hospital and a residency at Columbia-Presbyterian Hospital, both in New York, followed by a research fellowship at Boston Children’s Hospital. He accepted a position at the University of Vermont in 1956.

Lucey’s first marriage ended in divorce. He and Ingela Barth were married in 1972. Ingela Lucey said she was a Pan Am stewardess when they met in Hawaii.

Besides her, he is survived three children from his first marriage, David, Colleen Lucey Montgomery and Cathy Lucey; a son, Patrick, from his second marriage; four grandchildren; and three great-grandchildren.

Colleagues said Lucey had been a generous mentor. “Here you had this international champion for infants and children,” First said, “and yet when you called Jerry Lucey, he answered the phone himself, his door was always open, and he loved to sit down and talk to anyone about anything.”

He would also take time for complete strangers, said Dr. Marshall L. Land Jr., a close friend and a professor at the University of Vermont College.

Ten years ago, he said, Lucey tumbled down an escalator at John F. Kennedy Airport in New York. Waiting for hours in an emergency room with a skull fracture and a dislocated shoulder, he noticed that other patients, many with gunshot injuries, were confused about their medical care.

“He crawls off his gurney, with spinal fluid leaking out of his nose,” Land said, “and he went around to each patient, looked at their chart and explained what was going on with them.”

Copyright 2024 New York Times News Service. All rights reserved.