Leslie DeGroot, MD (1928-2018)

A renowned endocrinologist specializing in diseases of the thyroid, Leslie DeGroot, MD, professor emeritus in the departments of Medicine and Radiology at the University of Chicago, former director of the Thyroid Study Unit and chief of endocrinology at the University of Chicago, died surrounded by his family on Oct. 23, 2018 in South Dartmouth, Massachusetts. His death came one month after his 90th birthday.

Les DeGroot was a giant in endocrinology and thyroid disease. He had a very broad impact through his original scientific papers, text books and participation in important societies and organizations. Endocrinology at the University of Chicago benefitted immensely from his contributions. Personally I am grateful to Dr. DeGroot for the role he played to ensure that I along with the other endocrine fellows received outstanding clinical and scientific training. His legacy will live on through his contributions to knowledge of endocrinology and through the trainees who benefitted from the education they received at the University of Chicago.

According to the Endocrine Society, DeGroot was widely regarded as one of the “founders of modern thyroidology.” He was known for improving the understanding of thyroid hormone synthesis and its mechanism of action. He was also a pioneer in the study of thyroid hormone resistance, iodine metabolism, prevention and treatment of thyroid cancer and autoimmune thyroid disease.

DeGroot and colleague Samuel Refetoff, MD, the Frederick H. Rawson Professor in Medicine, were also key figures in unraveling a delayed epidemic of thyroid cancers. They found that from 1968 to 1972, 40 per cent of adults operated upon for thyroid carcinoma at the University had a prior history of neck irradiation at other institutions. In 1975, they published a study in the New England Journal of Medicine indicating that although the practice of x-ray treatment for benign childhood diseases had been discontinued, the prevalence of thyroid cancers appeared to be increasing.

DeGroot received many awards, including a Distinguished Research Award from the American Thyroid Association in 1993, the Medical Alumni Gold Medal for outstanding academic achievement from Columbia University in 1998, and awards from the Endocrine Society for the Outstanding Educator in 2003 and Outstanding Leadership in Endocrinology in 2014.

“Les was an integral part of my life for more than fifty years, from our first meeting at the Massachusetts General Hospital in 1966 to our last telephone conversation five days before he died,” Refetoff said. “We worked beside one another for 36 years at the University of Chicago, sharing space and ideas.” “He was extremely knowledgeable about anything related to the thyroid and willing to share what he knew,” said colleague, Ronald Cohen, MD, associate professor of medicine and section chief of endocrinology, diabetes and metabolism at the University of Chicago. “His patients just adored him. A decade after he left, they continue to ask about him.”

Leslie J. DeGroot was born September 20, 1928 on a dairy farm outside Fort Edward, a small town in upstate New York. His mother was an artist. His father was a farmer and a church deacon. DeGroot was educated at a local school and, as he put it, “helped on the farm—a lot.”He majored in science, mostly chemistry, at Union College, in Schenectady, NY, and graduated in 1948 at the age of 20. The medical school at Columbia University offered him a scholarship and a job. “So I went to Columbia,” he said. In 1955, after he completed medical school and a residency at Columbia’s New York Presbyterian Hospital, DeGroot entered a clinical fellowship at the National Cancer Institute> worked with Monte Greer, MD, a thyroid researcher at the NCI who became a mentor. After one year at NCI and several months as a volunteer medical missionary in Afghanistan, he began a research fellowship with John B. Stanbury, MD, a thyroid specialist at the Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH).The Stanbury lab was the “best lab in the world in that field,” he recalled. “We worked on metabolism…hereditary defects…thyroid hormone synthesis…hormone deficiency, and patients who had metabolic defects.”  Their method of purification of the hormone peroxidase became the one that is generally used.

From 1961 to 1965 DeGroot also served as a part-time associate editor for the New England Journal of Medicine. In 1966 he moved from MGH to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, in Cambridge, MA, where he was an associate professor of experimental medicine. In 1968 he accepted an invitation to move to the University of Chicago. This was “an opportunity to set up a program of my own making,” he said, with a promotion to full professor, leadership of the medical center’s thyroid study unit, and a salary that “seemed significant, in those days.” Over the ensuing thirty-six years he built the Thyroid Unit to internationally renowned status.

In 2005, DeGroot semi-retired from the University of Chicago and became a faculty member at Brown University. He continued to study thyroid disease in the laboratory run by his daughter Annie De Groot, MD. In 2008, he and his daughter transferred to the University of Rhode Island, where he became a founding member, at the age of 80, of the Institute for Immunology and Informatics in downtown Providence.

DeGroot was prolific. He published 462 papers, at last count, primarily on the function or malfunction of the thyroid gland. He lectured at conferences around the world, was elected president of the American Thyroid Association in 1973 and was recruited to the editorial boards of several journals. He edited six editions of the textbook, “Endocrinology,” which expanded over 30 years to become a three-volume textbook.

He also helped bring medical textbooks into the digital age. DeGroot served as president of Endocrine Education, Inc., the publisher of two online texts known as www.endotext.org and www.thyroidmanager.org. They jointly receive, according to the websites, tens of thousands of digital visits each day from an estimated 4,000 people from around the world. “These free, highly informative textbooks receive thousands of hits daily, many from the Third World where access to the latest medical advances is limited,” Refetoff said.

DeGroot is survived by Helen, his wife of 63 years; their five children: Katherine DeGroot of Fort Edward, NY; Dr. Anne DeGroot of Providence, RI; Elyse DeGroot of Falmouth, MA; Dr. Henry DeGroot of Newton, MA, and Key West, FL; and Jessica DeGroot of Philadelphia, PA; plus 11 grandchildren.

In lieu of flowers, memorial contributions should be sent to the Buzzards Bay Coalition, where DeGroot loved to sail, or the American Farmland Trust, because he loved his parents’ farm.