John F Kurtzke

BMJ 2016; 352 doi: (Published 02 February 2016) Cite this as: BMJ 2016;352:i584
  1. Ned Stafford, Hamburg
  1. ns{at}

Neurologist who studied the epidemiology of multiple sclerosis and developed the expanded disability status scale

John F Kurtzke’s fascination with multiple sclerosis (MS) started while he was studying medicine at Cornell University. He wrote his first research paper before he received his medical degree in 1952.1 The next year, while training in neurology at the Bronx Veterans Administration Medical Center (VA) in New York, he and his colleagues thought that they had found a drug—the then-new antituberculosis drug isoniazid—that could provide effective treatment for the disorder.

Kurtzke was, of course, wrong about isoniazid as a treatment for MS, as he later conceded. But he approached the doomed investigation of the drug with an open and curious mind. And, as sometimes happens in medical research, the investigation, despite moving down the wrong path, yielded contributions that advanced the treatment and understanding of the disease.

In subsequent decades, Kurtzke, as a professor of neurology at Georgetown University in Washington, DC, became a leading authority in the global epidemiology of MS,2 including writing several key papers on the “epidemic” in the Faroe Islands, the first published in 1978.3 Kurtzke wrote more than 200 scientific papers, including several for The BMJ,4 5 6 one of which was a collaboration with fellow MS epidemiologist Geoffrey Dean. …

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