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Richard K. Olney, MD, Renowned ALS Researcher Dies of ALS at 64



Richard K. Olney, MD, world-renowned for his work in amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), died of the disease at age 64 in his home in Corte Madera, CA on Jan. 27. Dr. Olney was the founding director of the ALS Treatment and Research Center at the University of California, San Francisco (UCSF).

For nearly 25 years, he worked at UCSF, spending the last 18 of these studying the complex disease he would become all too familiar with — ALS. Dr. Olney established an ALS clinic in 1993, which then became the UCSF ALS Center in 1999, and he served as its director until 2004 when his diagnosis forced him to resign.

Dr. Olney's dedication to his work, patients and to his students was inspiring, UCSF neurologists told Neurology Today. “Rick was someone who would drop everything to listen to any concern — from a patient, family member, or colleague. He was soft-spoken, patient, and incredibly knowledgeable,” said Catherine Lomen-Hoerth, MD, PhD, neurologist and director of the ALS Center. Dr. Lomen-Hoerth was Dr. Olney's student and protégée while a resident at UCSF. After Dr. Olney's ALS diagnosis, their roles shifted, and she became his personal physician and eventually took over as director of the ALS Center.

In 2001, the ALS Association and the Muscular Dystrophy Association jointly named the UCSF program the prestigious “ALS Center of Excellence” — one of only 16 such centers in the US at the time. The title is awarded to programs that offer advanced diagnostics and comprehensive patient care, access to the latest drug trials, and conduct clinical research aimed at identifying therapies.

Over the course of his career, Dr. Olney authored more than 60 scholarly articles, served as associate editor of Muscle Nerve, and as an editorial board member for Annals of Neurology, Clinical Neurophysiology, and the Journal of Clinical Neurophysiology. Dr. Olney was also a councilor of the AAN Neuromuscular Section and served on the board of directors for the American Association of Electrodiagnostic Medicine. He received the AAN's Public Education Award, honoring him for his efforts in advocating for ALS. In his final months, Dr. Olney worked with his son — who is currently a neurology resident at University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) — on a research paper examining nerve response in predicting the course of ALS, which Dr. Lomen-Hoerth will help to complete.

“Eventually locked in by ALS, Rick continued to think, write and research ALS throughout his illness. Rick was the most altruistic man that I ever knew. His relationship with his son Nick Olney, a former UCSF medical student and budding neurologist, was particularly moving for me to observe,” his former colleague Bruce Miller, MD, A.W. Clausen Distinguished Professor of Neurology and director of the Memory & Aging Center at UCSF, told Neurology Today.

Dr. Olney graduated from the University of Oklahoma in 1968 with a degree in chemistry, mathematics and zoology, and in 1973, he received a medical degree from Baylor College of Medicine in Houston, TX. He completed a training program in psychiatry at UCLA, as well as a neurology training program at the University of Oregon Health Sciences Center — and because of this “duel training in psychiatry as well as neurology, he had a unique way of interacting with patients and providing guidance on coping with the difficulties of having ALS,” said Dr. Lomen-Hoerth.

Hiroshi Mitsumoto, MD, the Wesley J. Howe Professor of Neurology at Columbia University at Columbia Presbyterian Medical Center and head of the Neuromuscular Division within the department of neurology, first met a healthy Dr. Olney at an ALS meeting in Florida in 1995, and the two worked on a paper together that year. When the two met again in 2004 at an international primary lateral sclerosis meeting, Dr. Olney took the stage in a wheelchair and announced that he had been diagnosed with ALS. “My jaw dropped. There was silence in the room,” Dr. Mitsumoto said. Dr. Olney was the nicest person, he said, and as the disease progressed, he used himself to do amazing things and to increase awareness and really publicize ALS.

“He was a role model in life and gave particular dignity and meaning to the process of dying,” said Dr. Miller.

Dr. Olney had a great love for the outdoors and had spent many Sundays hiking with his family. He is survived by his wife of 38 years, Paula, and two children, Amy Koch Olney Dobbs and Nicholas T. Olney, and grandson Richard Knox Olney. Donations in honor of Dr. Olney to the ALS Center at UCSF should be made payable to the UCSF Foundation, Box 45339, San Francisco, CA 94145-0339. The memo line should state: “Rick Olney ALS Endowment (S0406).”

In 2005, Neurology Today interviewed Richard Olney, MD, and his wife about his diagnosis, and his dual role of ALS patient and researcher. Read more here: