Dr. James M. Tanner, a British pediatrician who was among the first to study the growth of adolescents, developing charts that are still used by many physicians to define normal growth, died of a stroke Aug. 11 in Wellington in southwestern England. He was 90 and had also been suffering from prostate cancer.
Virtually unknown to the lay public, Tanner studied 90 children in an orphanage in Harpenden, north of London, from 1948 to 1971, carefully photographing each child and measuring his or her physical stature and other characteristics every three months to create the first modern growth charts.
The result was a series of growth charts that, unlike the one-size-fits-all charts that came before, established not only a normal growth pattern but also patterns for those who matured early and those who were late bloomers. The work demonstrated that children don’t all grow at the same pace and that delays in development or early puberty were all part of the normal spectrum of growth.
His work showed the powerful effect of environment on physical stature. Tanner argued that genetics may account for 90% of an individual’s eventual height and weight, but that when those characteristics are looked at across an entire society, they are a reflection of nutritional status and the care given to the society’s children.
His arguments have been adopted by archaeologists and economists, who have concluded that physical stature is a good surrogate for the quality of life of both ancient and modern cultures.
In recent years, particularly in the United States, Tanner’s longitudinally based scales have largely given way to cross-sectional surveys in which researchers pick a large group of children of a given age and mark their height and weight on a chart to produce a spectrum of statures. His conclusions, however, still have a powerful influence on the field.
James Mourilyan Tanner was born Aug. 1, 1920, in Camberly, near London. His father was a career army officer, and the young Tanner was reared partly in Egypt and China. He had intended to follow his father into the military, but after his older brother was killed in the early stages of World War II, he decided to become a doctor.
The fastest British junior runner in the 110-meter hurdles in 1939, Tanner earned what amounted to an athletic scholarship to St. Mary’s School of Medicine in London, teaching physical education to his classmates. He probably would have been on the British team for the 1940 Olympics had the games not been called off because of the war.
In the midst of the war, he was one of a small group of British medical students brought to the U.S. by the Rockefeller Foundation to complete his studies, graduating from the University of Pennsylvania and interning at Johns Hopkins. At Penn, he met his first wife, Dr. Bernice Alture, a general practitioner from Brooklyn. She died in 1991.
After the war, he was asked to take over the Harpenden study, which had originally been conceived to assess the effects of malnutrition on the 49 boys and 41 girls at the orphanage. He spent most of his career on the staffs of the Institute for Child Health and the Great Ormond Street Hospital for Children, both in London.
His books include 1981’s “A History of the Study of Human Growth,” 1990’s “Foetus Into Man: Physical Growth From Conception to Maturity” and, with Phyllis B. Eveleth, 1976’s “Worldwide Variation in Human Growth.” The latter was revised in 1991. He was also commissioned by Time-Life Books to write a 1965 introduction to the field called simply “Growth.”
Tanner is survived by his wife, Gunilla; a daughter, Helen Phillips of London; a stepson and a stepdaughter who live in Sweden; and three granddaughters.