Nuclear medicine pioneer Katherine Austin Lathrop, 1915-2005

March 18, 2005

A pioneer in the study of the biological effects of radiation, the development and testing of radiotracers in the early days of nuclear medicine and a member of the Manhattan Project, Katherine A. Lathrop, professor emerita in the department of radiology at the University of Chicago, died at a nursing home in Las Cruses, New Mexico, on March 10, 2005, from natural causes. She was 89.

Katherine Lathrop circa 1950

Lathrop was a key member of the University of Chicago team, consisting also of Paul Harper, Don Charleston and Robert Beck, that introduced technetium-99m into clinical practice in the early 1960s as a radiotracer agent in nuclear medicine. This radioactive substance is now used about 35,000 times a day in the United States and 20 million times a year worldwide in nuclear medicine scans designed to identify tumors or abnormal metabolism. Harper and Lathrop also developed the commercial method for producing iodine-125, another commonly used diagnostic radionuclide.

"Katherine Lathrop was a very creative chemist who made all kinds of radio-labeled compounds for specific applications and was instrumental, absolutely critical, in the early clinical work in nuclear medicine," recalled Robert Beck, professor emeritus of radiology at the University of Chicago. "I remember her as a very quiet, soft-spoken, inventive, dedicated and productive scientist."

Greg Karczmar, MD, PhD, an associate professor of radiology and medical physics who joined the University of Chicago in 1990, recalled that "despite her many accomplishments and the international recognition Professor Lathrop had received she was very humble, rarely talked about herself, and was perfectly happy to talk to a new young assistant professor as an equal. She was a warm and wonderful person who enjoyed talking about ideas."

Born June 16, 1915, in Lawton, Oklahoma, Katherine Austin showed an early interest in science. She earned her BS degrees in biology (1936) and physics (1939) and her MS in chemistry (1939) from Oklahoma State University, where she met Clarence A. Lathrop, whom she married in 1938. They lived in New Mexico and Wyoming for several years before moving to Chicago in 1944 so that he could attend medical school.

In Chicago, a security leak and an unanswered phone shaped her career. In 1945, one of her husband's friends mentioned that a secret project--now known as the Manhattan Project--at the University of Chicago was hiring people with scientific training and Lathrop applied. They brought her in for an interview and hired her that same day. Once she accepted the initial offer, the interviewer called the chemistry division and got no answer. He then "reached someone in biology," she recalled, "and I went for an interview.... It was decisive for my subsequent career."

Instead of chemistry, Lathrop began to study the "quantitative localization and biologic effects of radioactive substances." This was "valuable preparation," she noted in a 1993 interview, "for some of the contributions I was able to make to the development of nuclear medicine."

Lathrop worked as a junior biochemist in the Metallurgical Laboratory, part of the Manhattan Project, from 1945 to 1946, studying the uptake, retention, tissue distribution and excretion of radioactive materials in animals. From 1947 to 1954 she was an associate biochemist at Argonne National Laboratory. In 1954, to avoid the long commute to Argonne Laboratory, she joined the faculty as a research associate in Paul Harper's laboratory at the Argonne Cancer Research Hospital (ACRH), an Atomic Energy Commission facility that opened in 1953 on the University of Chicago campus. Its mission was to study the use of radioactive materials and radiation beams in the diagnosis and treatment of cancer.

Their partnership lasted more than 40 years, until 2000 when she suffered the first of a series of cerebral ischemic attacks that ended of her career. "I provided the ingenuity," Harper once noted, "and she provided the scholarship."

"They were a great team, really connected," recalled Stephanie Harper, Paul's daughter. "They fit together in curious ways, constantly bouncing ideas, as well as zings and barbs, off each other. She was one of the few who could put up with his ways and who kept him out of trouble, following behind him to smooth any feathers he might have ruffled."

Lathrop rose steadily though the ranks to become a professor. She shifted to emerita status in 1985, at age 70, but remained active in research, publishing her last paper in 1999 and retiring the next year.

Harper soon bought a technetium generator from Brookhaven and the ACRH team performed the first technetium brain scan in 1961, which was "not very good," recalled Beck. However, it encouraged the team to design and build their own brain scanner and they performed the first brain scan with it in 1963, which was "spectacular." They published the results in January 1964, the first publication to mention clinical applications of technetium, and "the field took off," said Beck.

Lathrop subsequently used technetium to radiolabel different materials for use in scanning the liver, thyroid and bone. About 85 percent of technetium use is now for bone scans.

Lathrop was also active in national research societies. She was one of the first members of the Society of Nuclear Medicine when it was formed in 1955. "When we started," she once said, "there was no field." In 1966 she became a member of the newly formed Medical Internal Radiation Dose Committee of the Society, serving as chair of the committee from 1977 to 1984. In this role, she helped put together and publish the first compendium listing where each radioactive isotope goes in the body and the cumulative dose to each organ.

From 1968 to 1984 she served as a member of the American National Standards Institute Committee on Nuclear Medicine, and from 1970 to 1975 she was a member of the Advisory Panel on Radioactive Pharmaceuticals for the United States Pharmacopoeia. At the FDA's request, she taught the first training sessions about radiation dose and exposure in nuclear medicine for regulatory workers.

While doing all this research, Lathrop also raised five children. "I am sometimes asked how I felt about working with radioactivity while pregnant," she noted in an interview. "I believed I was working in safe conditions. I have two controls, [children born before she began radiation research], three experimentals [children born during the research] and 10 grandchildren, all healthy and intelligent."

Lathrop is survived by four of those children: Jane Ellen Lathrop Grider of Las Cruces, New Mexico; Laura Eugenie Lathrop Fowler of Santa Fe, New Mexico; David Austin Lathrop of Gaithersburg, Maryland; and Julia Louise Lathrop Smiddy of Valparaiso, Indiana. One daughter, Kay Suzanne Lathrop Moore of Clinton Corners, New York, is deceased.

She had 10 grand children and had five great-grand children. In addition, she is survived by a sister, Billie Carol Austin, of Denver, Colorado, and a brother, John C. Austin, of Duncan, Oklahoma.

Lathrop will be buried next to her parents in Highland Cemetery in Lawton, Okalahoma, where she was born, on Friday, March 18. Messages of condolence may be sent to Dr. David Lathrop, 129A Chevy Chase St., Gaithersburg, MD 20878, lathropd@nih.gov or to the Becker Funeral home at 1502 Fort Sill Blvd. Lawton, OK, 73507, telephone (580) 353-3030, toll free (800) 983-3303, FAX (580) 357-1864, mail@Beckerfuneral.com.

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