Dr. John M. Freeman dies at 80; expert in children’s epilepsy


Dr. John M. Freeman, a longtime Johns Hopkins University pediatric neurologist and medical ethicist who was known as an expert in pediatric epilepsy, died Jan. 3 of cardiovascular disease at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore. He was 80.

His death was announced by Johns Hopkins.

Dr. Freeman’s iconoclastic questioning of established medical practices revolutionized the treatment of pediatric epilepsy and became the hallmark of his work.

He became a forceful advocate of two long-abandoned therapies — one that required a strict, unconventional high-fat ketogenic diet known as KD, the other involving surgery to remove half of the brain of children who were tormented by unremitting epileptic seizures — which led to their revival and current acceptance as effective treatments.


“Few Hopkins physicians have had a more profound effect than John Freeman on how we treat young patients who suffer from epilepsy and congenital abnormalities — and how we address the often-difficult ethical issues surrounding these potentially heart-breaking cases,” said Ronald R. Peterson, president of the Johns Hopkins Hospital and Health System and executive vice president of Johns Hopkins Medicine.

Dr. Guy McKhann, founding head of Johns Hopkins’ Department of Neurology, explained in a Hopkins announcement of Dr. Freeman’s death that his “resurrection of KD,” which completely eliminated the epileptic seizures of many patients, was accomplished “virtually all by himself, against great skepticism and opposition.”

John Mark Freeman was born Jan. 11, 1933, in Brooklyn, N.Y. He earned a bachelor’s degree in 1954 from Amherst College, where he was an honors graduate, and went on to complete his medical studies in 1958 at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine.

From 1958 to 1961, he was an intern, assistant resident and senior resident in pediatrics at the Harriet Lane Home of Johns Hopkins Hospital.

In 1961, he began a three-year fellowship in neurology and child neurology at Columbia Presbyterian Medical Center in New York City, and from 1964 to 1966, was a research physician while serving in the Army at Walter Reed Army Institute of Research in Washington, D.C., before joining the faculty of Stanford University.

Dr. Freeman returned to Hopkins in 1969 and rose through the academic ranks, becoming a full professor in pediatrics and neurology. From 1969 to 1990, he was director of the Pediatric Neurology Service at Hopkins Hospital, and he was concurrently director of the Birth Defects Treatment Center at the East Baltimore hospital.


In 1991, he was named the Lederer professor of pediatric epilepsy, a position he retained until becoming an emeritus professor in 2007.

He is survived by his wife of 57 years, the former Elaine Kaplan; three children, a brother, a stepsister and six grandchildren.

Rasmussen writes for the Baltimore Sun.