Dr. Thomas L. Petty dies at 76; pioneering lung specialist

Dr. Thomas L. Petty dies at 76; pioneering lung specialist
Dr. Thomas L. Petty, a pioneer in the use of continuous oxygen therapy for patients with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and other lung disorders, died at his home in Denver. He "was an inspiring teacher and superior bedside clinician," said a colleague, Dr. Robert J. Anderson. (Everything Respiratory Magazine)
Dr. Thomas L. Petty, the Colorado lung specialist who pioneered the use of continuous oxygen therapy for patients with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and other lung disorders, died at his home in Denver on Dec. 12 from pulmonary hypertension. He was 76.

More than 1 million people in the United States now use oxygen therapy at home, largely as a result of his research. He had needed oxygen therapy for several years while continuing his practice, giving him a unique perspective into the problems faced by lung patients. One of his books was titled "From Both Ends of the Stethoscope."

Petty was also the first to puncture an artery to measure arterial blood gases to monitor patients' progress and was the co-discoverer of adult respiratory distress syndrome.

Petty "was an inspiring teacher and superior bedside clinician with uncanny clinical insights," said Dr. Robert J. Anderson, chairman of the department of medicine at the University of Colorado Health Sciences Center in Denver, where Petty spent his career. "Dr. Petty was renowned for his ability to make a diagnosis based upon a clinical history, physical exam and review of the patient's chest X-ray."

Shortly after Petty joined the university in 1963, he realized that compact oxygen canisters developed by NASA were becoming commercially available, and he suspected that they could be used by patients to administer oxygen to themselves at home. Other pulmonologists had been reluctant to attempt such therapy, however, because of the then-prevailing belief that persistent use of oxygen would lead to unusually high levels of carbon dioxide in the blood with deleterious effects.

He and his colleagues initially studied six patients with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, or COPD, which is generally caused by smoking. It leaves its victims fatigued and unable to perform many daily tasks. After a month on the oxygen therapy, however, all six patients reported less fatigue and a higher quality of life. Petty was also able to demonstrate that there was no buildup of carbon dioxide in their blood.

British researchers independently reported similar results about the same time.

Initially, the oxygen therapy was used only part time, primarily at night while the patient was sleeping. In the 1970s, Petty and his colleagues organized a trial on 203 patients in which oxygen was administered around the clock. They reported in 1980 that the continuous therapy significantly elongated patients' lives.

In recent years, researchers have developed portable oxygen supplies, some of which concentrate oxygen from the air, that give patients much greater mobility, allowing them to travel by airplane, for example.

In 1967, Petty and Dr. David G. Ashbaugh of the University of Colorado and their colleagues were the first to describe and name adult respiratory distress syndrome, a severe lung failure triggered by infection or traumatic injury.

Petty was summoned to India as a consultant after the 1984 Bhopal disaster, in which the release of pesticide from a Union Carbide plant killed as many as 40,000 people and sickened 500,000 with lung disease, and he helped plan treatment for the survivors.

He wrote more than 30 books and published more than 800 articles in journals over the course of his career. He was also the founding chairman of the National Lung Health Education Program, which works to increase awareness and diagnosis of COPD.

Thomas Lee Petty was born in Boulder, Colo., on Dec. 24, 1932. He began working at age 12 delivering the Boulder Camera and held various jobs at the newspaper throughout his school years to pay for his education at the University of Colorado, working as a janitor, operating lead-melting machines for Linotypes and serving as assistant circulation manager. He received his medical degree from the University of Colorado in 1958.

Petty is survived by his wife, Carol, from whom he was separated; a daughter, two sons and eight grandchildren.