Dr. J. Julian Chisolm Jr., whose groundbreaking research on childhood lead poisoning threw a spotlight on a silent killer and saved thousands of lives, died Wednesday in Baltimore of congestive heart failure. He was 79.
His pioneering studies made him a leading figure in the history of public health in the 20th century and were instrumental in the passage of federal bans on lead in gasoline and paint in the 1970s.
Chisolm was a young pediatrician in 1952, when the head of pediatrics at Baltimore's City Hospitals offered him the chance to study the effects of lead poisoning. For four years, he went door-to-door in the slums of East Baltimore, collecting stool samples from poisoned children during hot summer months, when most deaths occurred. He would spend the winter analyzing the samples and measuring the lead content.
In 1956, he published "The Exposure of Children to Lead," the first in a series of startling studies. It found that black children in East Baltimore were being exposed to lead at levels up to six times higher than industrial workers who handled the metal for a living.
The study established that dust and chips from old lead paint in children's homes was the cause of the poisoning.
Chisolm went on to develop a treatment to remove the lead from children's blood. Based partly on a chemical agent used as a nerve gas antidote during World War II, it involved deep muscle injections several times a day for as long as a month. Although painful to administer, it was found to be effective and safe.
"His research turned out to be more than right," Dr. Charles Shubin, director of children's health at Baltimore's Mercy Medical Center, told the Baltimore Sun. "And he kept at it until his methods became the standard treatment and the common wisdom that guides the care of lead-poisoned children to this day."
The results of lead exposure are now well-documented. Lead poisoning prevents the absorption of essential minerals that leads its young victims to develop permanently unstable brains. Such children experience what Chisolm called "dumbing effects"--notably hyperactivity and the inability to concentrate for more than a few minutes. Many such children do poorly in school, are prone to violent outbursts and develop unhealthy patterns of adult behavior that may include alcohol and drug abuse. Black children are disproportionately affected by the scourge.
In the 1970s, Chisolm and his protege, Dr. Ellen K. Silbergeld, testified before Congress, the National Academy of Sciences, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and other federal regulatory agencies, warning of the dangers of lead poisoning to young children.
In his appearance before the Senate Select Committee on Nutrition and Human Needs, Chisolm hammered at the dangers by holding up a paint chip the size of an adult thumbnail and explaining that such a small amount, if ingested several times a week for two or three months, would produce toxic lead levels in a child.
Baltimore proved an ideal laboratory for Chisolm's pioneering investigations because of its large stock of aged, substandard housing. Lead poisoning still causes about 1,200 deaths a year in the city, recently ranked one of the most toxic in the country by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. Lead poisoning deaths nationally are rare, but it remains a significant public health concern.
From 1975 until 1996, Chisolm directed the lead clinic at Baltimore's world-famous Kennedy Krieger Institute. Although he relied on a wheelchair, he was keeping regular office hours and directing research until last year. He was the author of more than 140 articles and scientific papers on lead poisoning.
The son of a prominent Baltimore ear, nose and throat specialist, Chisolm earned a bachelor's degree from Princeton University in 1944, and a medical degree from Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine in 1946. He was a pediatric intern and then an assistant resident in pediatrics at Johns Hopkins before moving to Babies Hospital in New York for his senior residency. He returned to Johns Hopkins in 1951 and taught pediatrics there for more than four decades.
His military service included a stint in the Army Service Training Program from 1943 to 1946 and in the Army Medical Corps from 1948 to 1950. He left the Army with the rank of captain.
Chisolm remained devoted to lead poisoning's eradication throughout his career. Last year, he inspected some of the same slum dwellings he visited when he conducted the city's first mass screening for lead poisoning almost a half century earlier. He found that many of the homes were still toxic.
"When you see the grief it brings into [children's] lives, and into the lives of their families," he told the Baltimore Sun, "it's unconscionable that we've let this problem go on as long as we have."
He is survived by his wife, Sylvia, and a son, Edward, both of Baltimore; and a sister, Mary Mountcastle, of Roanoke, Va.