Obituary: Charles W. Parker, emeritus professor of medicine, 83

Charles Ward Parker, MD, a Washington University faculty member whose pioneering research helped improve treatment of allergies and asthma, died Tuesday, April 23, 2013, from pancreatic cancer at his home in Webster Groves. He was 83.

Charles W. Parker (Credit: University Archives)

The emeritus professor of medicine served on the faculty at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis for more than four decades.

Parker grew up in Webster Groves and attended Washington University for his undergraduate and medical studies, graduating from the School of Medicine in 1953. Afterward, he did his residency in internal medicine at Barnes Hospital, and served as chief resident from 1958-59.

Parker’s mentor, Herman Eisen, PhD, professor emeritus at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, noted that scholars who explore a variety of topics are often described as “foxes,” while those who explore one are “hedgehogs.”

“Charlie Parker was clearly a fox who contributed to our understanding of many aspects of the immune system,” Eisen said.

One of Parker’s major interests was allergy to penicillin.

“This was a very important clinical concern at the time because we didn’t have many alternative antibiotics that we could use in patients who had severe penicillin allergies,” said John Atkinson, MD, the Samuel Grant Professor of Medicine at Washington University, who did postgraduate work with Parker. “Dr. Parker developed the first tests for this allergy and worked on ways to decrease patients’ sensitivity to penicillin.”

In the early 1960s, Parker founded the Division of Allergy and Immunology in the Department of Internal Medicine. The division’s current director, H. James Wedner, MD, also studied under Parker as a postdoctoral fellow.

“He was an amazing thinker,” Wedner recalled. “He never forgot anything, and his ability to analyze and synthesize information was astounding. He was always finding something new and different, something nobody else had tried.”

When Wedner came to study under Parker, allergists were concerned about a missing link in their understanding of anaphylactic shock, the sudden, severe allergic reactions that can kill in minutes.

Parker determined that the link was a metabolite of arachidonic acid, a fatty acid found in the walls of every cell. This discovery made it possible to determine the structure of the molecule, which allowed it to be classified as a leukotriene, a family of signaling compounds now known to help regulate immune responses.

“The depth and breadth of Dr. Parker’s scientific contributions are quite remarkable,” said Victoria Fraser, MD, the Adolphus Busch Professor and chairman of the Department of Medicine. “In addition to his seminal contributions in penicillin sensitivity and identification of the leukotriene’s roles in allergy, he also developed a number of important radioimmunoassays, which are very sensitive tests that help us monitor critical biological compounds in research and in the clinic.”

Several of those tests still play important roles in the clinic, according to Fraser. One, known as the CPK-MB test,was one of the first tests to identify heart attacks. Another allows physicians to monitor the levels of medications known as digitoxins in heart patients.

Parker was a Howard Hughes Medical Institute investigator from 1977 to 1989. In 1983, Parker won Washington University’s Alumni Award. He became an honorary fellow of the American Academy of Allergy and Immunology in 1983.

Parker is survived by his wife of 59 years, Mary Langston Parker (WUSM MD ’53); his brother, Brent Parker, MD; children Charles S. Parker, MD; Christina Parker, MD; Katherine Parker Ponder, MD, a professor in the School of Medicine’s Division of Hematology; and Sandra Parker Bigg; and 15 grandchildren. One son, Keith L. Parker, MD, PhD, died in 2008.

A memorial service will be held at 3 p.m. Sunday, May 19, at the First Congregational Church of Webster Groves. A reception will follow.

Contributions may be sent to the Charles W. Parker Memorial Fund at the Division of Allergy & Immunology, c/o Jill Munoz, Washington University School of Medicine, 660 S. Euclid Avenue, Box 8122, St. Louis, Mo. 63116, or to the Webster Groves Public Library, in memory of Charles W. Parker, 301 E. Lockwood Ave.; Webster Groves, Mo. 63119-3102.

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