March 31, 2005
Vol. 24 No. 13

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    Lathrop, radiologist, innovator in nuclear medicine

    A pioneer in the study of the biological effects of radiation and in the development and testing of radiotracers in the early days of nuclear medicine, as well as a member of the Manhattan Project, Katherine A. Lathrop, Professor Emerita in Radiology, died Thursday, March 10, from natural causes. She was 89.

    Lathrop was a key member of a University team, which also included Robert Beck, Professor Emeritus in Radiology; former faculty member Don Charleston; and Paul Harper, Professor Emeritus in Surgery and Radiology. They introduced technetium-99m into clinical practice in the early 1960s as a radiotracer agent in nuclear medicine.

    The radioactive substance now is used about 35,000 times a day in the United States and 20 million times a year worldwide in nuclear medicine scans designed to identify tumors or abnormal metabolism.

    Born June 16, 1915, in Lawton, Okla., Katherine Austin earned her B.S. degrees in biology (1936) and physics (1939) and her M.S. in chemistry (1939) from Oklahoma State University, where she met Clarence Lathrop, whom she married in 1938. They lived in New Mexico and Wyoming for several years before moving to Chicago in 1944, so he could attend medical school.

    In Chicago, a security leak and an unanswered phone helped shape her career. In 1945, one of her husband’s friends mentioned that a high-security project at the University—now known as the Manhattan Project—was hiring people with scientific training, and Lathrop applied.

    They brought her in for an interview and hired her that same day. When she accepted the initial offer, the interviewer called the chemistry division and got no answer. He then “reached someone in biology,” she recalled, “and I went for an interview . . . It was decisive for my subsequent career.”

    Instead of chemistry, Lathrop began to study the “quantitative localization and biologic effects of radioactive substances.” This was “valuable preparation,” she noted in a 1993 interview, “for some of the contributions I was able to make to the development of nuclear medicine.”

    Lathrop worked as a junior biochemist in the Metallurgical Laboratory, part of the Manhattan Project, from 1945 to 1946. From 1947 to 1954, she was an associate biochemist at Argonne National Laboratory. She then joined the Chicago faculty as a Research Associate in Harper’s laboratory at the Argonne Cancer Research Hospital, an Atomic Energy Commission facility that opened in 1953 on the University campus. Its mission was to study the use of radioactive materials and radiation beams in the diagnosis and treatment of cancer.

    Their research partnership lasted more than 40 years, until 2000 when she suffered the first of a series of cerebral ischemic attacks that ended her career. “I provided the ingenuity,” Harper once noted, “and she provided the scholarship.”

    Lathrop rose steadily through the ranks to full Professor. At 70, she shifted to Professor Emerita status, but remained active in research, publishing her last paper in 1999, followed by her 2000 retirement.

    She also was active in national research societies, including the first in her field, the Society of Nuclear Medicine, established in 1955.

    “When we started,” she once said, “there was no field.” In 1966, she became a member of the newly formed Medical Internal Radiation Dose Committee of the society, serving as committee chair from 1977 to 1984. In this role, she helped document and publish the first compendium listing, where each radioactive isotope goes in the body and the cumulative dose to each organ.

    Lathrop is survived by four of her children: Jane Ellen Lathrop Grider of Las Cruces, N.M.; Laura Eugene Lathrop Fowler of Santa Fe, N.M.; David Austin Lathrop of Gaithersburg, Md.; and Julia Louise Lathrop Smiddy of Valparaiso, Ind. One daughter, Kay Suzanne Lathrop Moore, is deceased.

    She had 10 grandchildren and five great-grandchildren. In addition, she is survived by a sister, Billie Austin, of Phoenix, and a brother, John Austin, of Duncan, Okla.

    Messages of condolence may be sent to David Lathrop, 129A Chevy Chase St., Gaithersburg, Md. 20878, lathropd@nih.gov or to the Becker Funeral home at 1502 Fort Sill Blvd., Lawton, Okla., 73507, telephone (580) 353-3030, toll free (800) 983-3303, fax (580) 357-1864, or mail@Beckerfuneral.com.