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Dr. Frank Falkner, world-renowned child growth expert, dies at 84

– Dr. Frank Tardrew Falkner, professor emeritus and former chair of maternal and child health at the University of California, Berkeley, and an internationally recognized leader in the field of pediatric growth and development, has died at age 84.

Falkner, who had prostate cancer, died in his sleep at his Berkeley home on Thursday, Aug. 21.

 Dr. Frank Falkner
Dr. Frank T. Falkner (Photo courtesy the Falkner family)

"Not only is Frank's death a great personal loss for me, but it's also a loss for the School of Public Health, the university and the children of the world," said Brenda Eskenazi, a professor of epidemiology and maternal and child health at UC Berkeley's School of Public Health.

Known by his friends and colleagues as both a modern-day Renaissance Man and a consummate gentleman, Falkner left an imprint in fields as disparate as child health research and professional auto racing.

During his career, which spanned more than 55 years, Falkner published more than 160 papers and led several major studies on child development. His studies on how child and infant development can impact adult health helped lead to the first international growth standards. At a time when fetal health was still a new focus in pediatrics, Falkner was an early advocate of more research into fetal growth and its impact on health after birth.

"Frank Falkner had a profound effect on the thinking of a whole generation of physicians who were working to understand disturbances in growth among children and infants," said Dr. Melvin Grumbach, Edward B. Shaw professor emeritus and former chair of pediatrics at UC San Francisco, where Falkner held a joint appointment as professor of pediatrics. "Falkner and his colleagues had a major impact on the use of growth curves to assess development and the dynamics of growth."

Born in Hale-Cheshire, England, on Oct. 27, 1918, Falkner received his medical education in the midst of World War II. Unable to join the frontline because a childhood bout with polio osteomyelitis left a lingering stiffness in his right leg, Falkner received his clinical training at two London hospitals during the "Blitz," Nazi Germany's intense bombing of the city. He received his medical degree from the University of Cambridge in 1945, the same year the war ended.

His career in the United States began in 1956 when he joined the faculty of the University of Louisville School of Medicine in Kentucky, where he soon became chair of the Department of Pediatrics. There, Falkner was one of the first researchers to study twins in the evaluation of genetic versus environmental influences on growth.

Twelve years later, he became program director and then associate director at the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development.

In 1970, he joined the Fels Research Institute to direct the Fels Longitudinal Study of Physical Growth and Development, the oldest and largest growth study in the world. Data from the Fels study form the basis of the North American Standard Tables of Height and Weight, which physicians have used for years to monitor children's physical growth.

Falkner went on to hold faculty positions at various universities, including Georgetown University, the University of Cincinnati and the University of Michigan, before joining the University of California in 1981. During his tenure at UC Berkeley and UCSF, he helped form the Joint Health and Medical Sciences Program that spanned the two campuses.

While at UC Berkeley, Falkner collaborated with Zak Sabry, UC Berkeley professor of health policy and management, on a longitudinal study of heart disease risk factors, including the development of obesity and high blood pressure, among white and black female adolescents.

At UC Berkeley, he served as chair of the former Department of Social and Administrative Health Sciences from 1983 to 1987, and of the Maternal and Child Health Program from 1981 until his retirement in 1989.

Along with his colleague, James Tanner, professor emeritus of child health and growth at the University of London, Falkner edited two editions of "Human Growth: A Comprehensive Treatise." This three-volume encyclopedia is widely considered the first comprehensive treatment of the topic.

Falkner is well known in the international child health community, having served as a U.S. diplomat with the Family Health Division of the World Health Organization and as coordinator at the Centre International de L'Enfance (CIE) Growth Studies in Paris.

His research added evidence to the negative role malnutrition plays in fetal and child brain development in poverty-stricken regions of the developed world. He was also editor-in-chief of the International Child Health Journal.

Falkner earned numerous awards and honors for his work, including the International Pediatric Association Medal in 1995 in recognition of his long and outstanding service to children. In 1985, he was elected a member of the prestigious Institute of Medicine of the National Academy of Sciences. He is a fellow of the American Academy of Pediatrics, the Royal College of Physicians and the Royal College of Pediatrics and Child Health.

But Falkner's achievements stretched well beyond academia. He was an accomplished musician and had considered becoming a concert pianist before opting for a career in medicine. He composed music for and performed in the world-famous Cambridge University Footlights Dramatic Club, which counts such notable actors as Emma Thompson and Hugh Laurie as past members. Falkner continued playing piano even after suffering a debilitating stroke in 1998, using the exercise as a form of therapy.

A member of the British Racing Drivers' Club, Falkner was an avid race car enthusiast and, whenever possible, coordinated attendance at medical conferences with Grand Prix events. He served as the unofficial "team doctor" for several giants in the field of motor sport. Among his friends were Ken Tyrrell, founder of the Tyrrell Racing Formula One Team, and John Cooper, founder of the Cooper Car Company, both of whom died in recent years.

Falkner's connections helped him launch the career of race car champion Danny Sullivan, who was a childhood friend of Falkner's son, Michael. Not only did Frank Falkner send Sullivan to driving school in England, he persuaded Tyrrell to give Sullivan a driving test. Tyrrell hired Sullivan, who went on to win the Indianapolis 500 in 1985 and the 1988 CART (Championship Auto Racing Teams) championship.

"I had never followed racing until Frank introduced me to the Mini Cooper and the (Triumph) TR-2," said Sullivan. "I was 21 and bumming around New York when I told Frank I wanted to get into racing. He said that if I'm going to do it, he was going to make sure I did it right. I wouldn't be where I am now if it weren't for Frank."

One week before Falkner's death, Sullivan carried Falkner from the house into the passenger seat of a new Porsche and gave the racing enthusiast one last ride around the block.

Falkner is survived by his daughter, Sally Letzer, of Calabasses, Calif.; son, Michael Falkner, of Wiernsheim-Pinache, Germany; and two grandchildren. His former wife, June Dixon Falkner, died in 2000.

A burial service will be held at St. Mary's Church in Bosley, Macclesfield, Cheshire, England, at 2 p.m. on Saturday, Sept. 6. Flowers for the service may be sent to June Falkner-Hague, Primrose Cottage, Bosley, Macclesfield, Cheshire, England, SK11OPU.

To confirm attendance or to contribute a special message to be shared at the burial service, please call Sabrina Foster at (415) 445-3030, or e-mail sabrina@fostermedia.com.