Jacquelin Perry

BMJ 2013; 346 doi: (Published 04 June 2013) Cite this as: BMJ 2013;346:f3233
  1. Ned Stafford, Hamburg
  1. ns{at}

Orthopaedic surgeon and expert in human gait and rehabilitation

When the 35 founding members of the international Scoliosis Research Society posed for a photographer in 1966, it was easy to spot orthopaedic surgeon Jacquelin Perry. She was sitting in the front row wearing a smart white skirt suit, with three men on her right and six men on her left. The remaining 25 men were standing behind her—all in dark business suits. As one of only 10 female orthopaedic surgeons in the US when certified a decade before, Perry was well accustomed to being the only woman at meetings with her colleagues.

“It was definitely not a specialty for women back then,” she recalled years later in a book of “moving stories” published by the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons.1 “People said it was too strenuous. Too mechanical.”

Perry proved them wrong. Douglas W Jackson, a former president of the American Board of Orthopaedic Surgery, says Perry distinguished herself as a teacher, clinician, and researcher. Jackson, who trained briefly under Perry in the early 1970s, says she mentored by example, with total dedication to her patients and students. “She encouraged her students and anyone she met to be the best they could be,” he says.

In the late 1950s Perry rose to prominence as a leader in spinal surgical techniques to rehabilitate paralysed polio victims. Working at the Rancho Los Amigos National Rehabilitation Center in Downey, California, she recognised that bracing methods used at the time—such as plaster casts or traction slings—did not provide adequate stability for patients paralysed in the neck and trunk.

She and Rancho colleague Vernon Nickel developed a “halo device” which provided better immobilisation for the spine, neck, and head. The device, consisting of a ring placed around the patient’s head and a vest around the trunk, was subsequently widely used in other hospitals. Perry and Nickel documented the device in a key paper published in 1968.2

In the 1960s, as the polio epidemic subsided, Perry expanded her focus to the rehabilitation of patients with other ailments and diseases. These included stroke victims, people with quadriplegia, and children with brain injuries. As the author of more than 400 papers, she was recognised for her work on neuromuscular diseases with orthopaedic manifestations, and on the biomechanics of walking. Her 1992 book Gait Analysis: Normal and Pathological Function is a standard text in orthopaedics.3

“Most doctors go into medicine to save lives,” she said in a 1959 newspaper interview. “I’m more interested in getting handicapped persons functioning again.”

Perry was born on 31 May 1918 in Denver, Colorado but was raised in Los Angeles. “I knew at about age 10 that I wanted to be a doctor,” she later said. “I read every medical book in the Los Angeles library.” In 1940, after earning her bachelor’s degree in physical education from the University of California at Los Angeles, she began training in physical therapy at Walter Reed Army General Hospital in Washington. She earned her certificate in 1941, the same year she joined the army. During the second world war she served as a physical therapist, working with patients with polio at a hospital in Hot Springs, Arkansas. She later quipped, “I had to convince the army that I was completely unable to write, because if they thought I could write they would have made me a secretary.”

In 1946 she began medical studies at the University of California in San Francisco, earning her medical degree in 1950. In 1955, after orthopaedic surgery residencies in San Francisco, she joined Rancho Los Amigos, where she would remain for the rest of her life.

After a brain artery blockage, Perry quit operating on patients in 1968 and founded Rancho’s pathokinesiology laboratory. As a researcher and teacher she had a reputation as a no nonsense perfectionist. Her work was highly regarded among physical therapists.4

According to John Carlisle Brown, a former Rancho colleague and former president of the Scoliosis Research Society, “She was relentless in her inquisitiveness and search for the truth.”

In the 1980s, when former polio patients in the US started to complain of muscle weakness, fatigue, breathing difficulty, and other ailments, Perry became a leading authority on what was named post-polio syndrome. In addition to her work at Rancho, Perry taught orthopaedics and physical therapy at the University of Southern California, retiring in 1992 as professor emeritus. Although she officially retired as chief of Rancho’s polio and gait clinic in 1999 she remained active, although she had Parkinson’s disease. She had treated patients the week before she died.

Perry, who never married, remained in personal contact with many of the young polio patients she successfully treated and rehabilitated in the 1950s. In tributes after her death, they affectionately noted that Perry could be intimidating and sometimes came across as gruff.

“She was a generous and caring person,” says Richard Dagget, president of the Polio Survivors Association ( “Dr Perry’s apparent gruffness was really a result of her ability to focus on the task at hand. She demanded the best medical care for her patients, and we, as patients, soon realised that. We knew she put our interests above everything else.”


Cite this as: BMJ 2013;346:f3233


  • Jacquelin Perry (b 1918, q 1950 University of California at San Francisco), died at home in Downey, California, on 11 March 2013.


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