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Jack P. Whisnant, MD, Pioneering Neurovascular Researcher and Former AAN President, Dies

Pioneering neurovascular disease researcher and former AAN President Jack P. Whisnant, MD, died May 22 at the Charter House Short Term Rehabilitation Center in Rochester, MN. He was 90 years old and retired from his longstanding appointments at Mayo Medical School in Rochester at the time of his death.

In addition to serving as president of the AAN from 1993 to 1995, Dr. Whisnant was a leading researcher in cerebrovascular disease, instrumental to promoting the use of epidemiology in stroke research. He contributed to more than 300 scientific papers. He also served as president of the American Neurological Association in 1982 and the American Board of Psychiatry and Neurology in 1989.

“Very few individuals, if any, have been president of all three,” said Terrence L. Cascino, MD, FAAN, a staff consultant in neurology and a professor of neurology and neuro-oncology at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, and the current President of the AAN. Dr. Cascino met Dr. Whisnant in 1977 as a first-year neurology resident at Mayo, and recalls his former colleague as “a good mentor and an even better role model.

“When I first met him, I realized how incredibly open and kind and patient he was, and what a good listener he was for young colleagues just starting out,” Dr. Cascino recalled. Later, when Dr. Whisnant was appointed President of the AAN, “I was impressed by how he had time for anyone, no matter their age or rank. That really made a profound impact on me. Jack was a superb AAN president, providing important leadership at a critical time.”

Former colleagues who spoke with Neurology Today recalled him as soft-spoken, an effective leader, and exceptionally gracious to all of his colleagues, from fellow neurologists to medical students to nurses and other health professionals.

As AAN president, “he was always kind to people, but he was always prepared to make a difficult decision and was able to move things in the right direction,” said Robert C. Griggs, MD, FAAN, a professor of neurology, medicine, pathology and laboratory medicine, pediatrics, and at the Center for Human Experimental Therapeutics at the University of Rochester School of Medicine and Dentistry in Rochester, NY. Dr. Griggs, who was President of the AAN from 2009 to 2011, served under Dr. Whisnant at AAN Board meetings. “I thought he was a very talented leader who knew what ought to be done and made every effort to do it.”

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DR. JACK P. WHISNANT (1924-2015)

Dr. Whisnant was instrumental as a clinical researcher in defining the contemporary understanding of cerebrovascular disease, said Robert D. Brown Jr., MD, MPH, FAAN, a professor of neurology at Mayo. “Most vascular neurologists would agree that Dr. Whisnant's contributions were landmark papers in the field. Among other things, his research documented, using population-based research techniques, the epidemiology of transient ischemic attack and cerebral infarction, the risk factors and key interactions of risk factors for stroke and subtypes of stroke, risk factors for carotid occlusive disease, and the epidemiology and management of subarachnoid hemorrhage, intracerebral hemorrhage, intracranial aneurysms, and asymptomatic carotid disease,” he said. “Many of these papers were and are referred to as key manuscripts of the era.”

Dr. Whisnant was equally gracious in his personal life, said Peter J. Dyck, MD, FAAN, a professor of neurology and director of the Peripheral Nerve Research Laboratory at Mayo. In later years, Dr. Dyck regularly met with Dr. Whisnant for coffee, and noticed “that he was on a first-name basis with the people who served him coffee, which was very typical of Jack.”

“Once you met Dr. Whisnant, you were struck by his humility, integrity, patience, and kindness, in combination with keen intellect,” Dr. Brown said. “He was a superb clinician, mentor, and clinical researcher who demonstrated the highest level of professionalism in all of his activities.”

Prior to attending college, Dr. Whisnant served as a pilot in the United States Army Aviation Cadet Corps. In 1944, at age 19, he married his high school sweetheart, Patricia “Pat” Rimmey, while serving as second lieutenant in the Army Air Corps. He flew 55 combat missions in New Guinea and the Philippines before age 21.

After his discharge in 1945, Dr. Whisnant completed undergraduate and medical education at the University of Arkansas, then completed an internship at Baltimore City Hospital. He began his residency training in internal medicine at the Mayo Clinic and switched to neurology nearly two years later. He was appointed to the staff of the Mayo Clinic in the Sections of Neurology in July 1955.

In 1958, Dr. Whisnant was awarded the first research grant to the Mayo Clinic from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) for his work in experimental neuropathology of cerebral vascular disease. He later turned his focus to clinical research, and used NIH funds to develop a research program in stroke epidemiology in 1966. Nine years later, he became director and principal investigator of the Mayo Cerebral Vascular Research Center.

At Mayo, Dr. Whisnant became head of a section of neurology in 1963, and was appointed a professor of neurology in 1969. He served as chair of the department of neurology from 1971 to 1981, and was named chair of the department of biostatistics and epidemiology in 1987. During his tenure, he reorganized the department as the department of health sciences research, comprising the sections of biostatistics, clinical epidemiology, and medical informatics, and served as chair for the department until 1993. He was appointed the Roy E. and Merle Mayer Professor of Neuroscience at Mayo Medical School in 1981.

Among his many awards, Dr. Whisnant was named a Distinguished Alumnus from the University of Arkansas College of Medicine in 1979 and the Mayo Foundation Distinguished Alumnus in 2003. He received an honorary doctoral degree from the University of Edinburgh, in Scotland, in 1994, for his “ability to merge successfully the clinical discipline of Neurology with the quantitative science of Epidemiology.”

Dr. Whisnant is survived by his wife, Pat; his daughter, Elizabeth (Betsy), and her husband, Peter; his son John and wife Susie; his son James (Jamey) and wife Carol; and his grandsons, Daniel and Paul. In lieu of flowers, donations may be made to the Mayo Clinic Foundation (http://www.mayoclinic.org/giving-to-mayo-clinic).