Leslie J. DeGroot, MD, professor of medicine and thyroid specialist, 1928-2018

Leslie DeGroot
Leslie DeGroot, MD, on his sailboat, the Restless

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.

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 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, and socializing with our families and our respective fellows and their families.”

“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.”

“Les DeGroot was a giant in endocrinology and thyroid disease,” said Kenneth Polonsky, MD, Dean of the Division of the Biological Sciences and the Pritzker School of Medicine and Executive Vice President of Medical Affairs. “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.”

'A man of strong convictions'

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 that, for a while, had just 12 students. He advanced to a larger local school, then high school in Fort Edward. He also, as he put it, “helped on the farm—a lot.”

In 1944, he entered Union College, in Schenectady, NY, close to his home. He majored in science, mostly chemistry, and graduated in 1948 at the age of 20. When he applied to medical school at Columbia University, in New York City, they offered him a scholarship and a job. “So I went to Columbia,” he explained in a 2009 interview for the Endocrine Society Oral History Collection.

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 (NCI), but he was promptly drafted into the Navy. He was able to arrange a transfer from the Navy to the Public Health Service, where he worked with Monte Greer, MD, a thyroid researcher at the NCI who became a mentor. After one year at NCI and one year as a volunteer medical missionary in Afghanistan, where his daughter was born, he returned to the U.S. and began a research fellowship with a new mentor, 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. This was not “Nobel laureate stuff,” DeGroot said, but good solid research that “earned me some recognition.” He also published on patients or families with unexplained thyroid abnormalities.

From1961 to 1965 DeGroot also served as a part-time associate editor for the New England Journal of Medicine. “A friend suggested my name, I was interviewed and I got the job,” he said. He read articles submitted to the journal, wrote critiques and presented them at weekly board meetings—an efficient way to stay on top of the literature.

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.”

As he and his wife drove toward the Midwest, however, riots broke out in parts of Chicago. During driving breaks, “We watched on TV,” he told a reporter in a 2009 interview. “It was absolutely wild. We were moving to that spot.”

“Over the ensuing thirty-six years he built the Thyroid Unit to internationally renowned status,” Refetoff said. “Les was a man of strong convictions but incessantly fair. As head of endocrinology he strictly abided by the majority vote of section members even when it contradicted his own wishes—something unheard of in times recent or past.”

Prolific author and researcher

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.

Throughout his career, DeGroot was prolific. He published 462 papers, 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 major 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 endotext.org and 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.

“His death leaves a vacuum in my life as no doubt it does in so many others,” Refetoff added, “but most particularly his large family of children and grandchildren and, of course, Helen.”

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,” Polonsky said. “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.”

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.