Obituary: Mary Langston Parker, associate professor emeritus of medicine, 89

Mary Langston Parker, MD, who made an indelible mark at Washington University, first as a dedicated, tireless physician and researcher and then as the university’s forward-thinking director of student health services, died Saturday, May 24, 2014, from complications of Alzheimer’s disease.

Parker, an associate professor emeritus of preventive medicine and a mother of five, died at a nursing home in St. Louis County. She was 89.

Parker’s death came nearly 13 months after the death of her husband of 59 years, Charles Ward Parker, an emeritus professor of medicine at the university. The couple lived in Webster Groves for many years.

A Florida native, Parker earned a bachelor’s degree in 1946 from Florida State College for Women and a master’s degree in 1949 from Florida State University. But her decision to pursue a medical degree was not as well-received at home. Her father disapproved of the idea of female physicians and would not support her. Undaunted, she enrolled at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis and was able to attend with a scholarship from the school.

Parker went on to graduate cum laude in 1953 as one of seven women in her class. That same year, she married her classmate Charles Parker. The two would spend their careers at the university.

Mary Parker first worked in the university’s Health Service, but then became involved in endocrinology research with William H. Daughaday, MD, an international authority on growth hormone and former director of the metabolism division at the School of Medicine.

Parker worked with Daughaday from 1959-1968 and helped develop a blood test for human growth hormone. The research, reported in the journal Nature in 1964, helped identify patients with low and elevated growth hormone levels. The latter affected Robert Wadlow, the 8-foot-11-inch “Alton Giant.” Parker helped confirm that Wadlow had an excess of growth hormone by testing samples collected from Wadlow when he was examined years before at Washington University.

Parker checks the height of a young patient. (Credit: Washington University)

Parker also determined that growth hormone secretion was regulated by the hypothalamus, and she developed a test to measure sulfation factor, later known as insulin-like growth factor, a protein that is an essential mediator of growth hormone. She also cared for patients with endocrine disorders and frequently brought her own children to the clinical research center when she visited young patients on weekends.

In 1968, Parker decided to focus more on patient care and returned to the university’s Health Service. She was named director of student health on the Danforth Campus in 1971. Four years later, the Medical Campus was added to her duties.

When the nation was confronted with the AIDS epidemic in the mid-1980s, Parker took an aggressive stance. As a member of the university’s AIDS task force and director of the Health Service, she spearheaded an effort to install condom machines in dormitories, locker rooms and other campus buildings. “Not one parent has expressed an objection,” Parker said in an interview three years later. “They said they were so glad we didn’t have our heads in the sand.”

Washington University Chancellor Emeritus William H. Danforth, who was chancellor when the AIDS crisis surfaced, lauded Parker for her insightful response. “That was typical of her,” he recalled. “She was a physician, and that was a bad disease, and she went right after trying to prevent it and stop it as best she could.

“Everybody had a lot of confidence in her. The students, the administrators — everyone admired her and knew she was always trying to do what was best for the students. She paid attention, she cared. She was very good.”

Parker also helped create the Emergency Support Team, a student-run volunteer group that, 35 years later, continues to provide round-the-clock medical care on the Danforth Campus during the fall and spring semesters.

“It is one of the oldest — if not the oldest — collegiate life squads in the country and is still a vital part of Washington University campus life,” said Alan Glass, MD, assistant vice chancellor and director of the university’s Habif Health and Wellness Center. “Dr. Mary Parker was a strong and significant figure here.”

In 1977-78, Parker became the first female president of the Medical School Alumni Association. She received the university’s Alumni Faculty Award in 1998. And in 2009, she was named Pioneer Woman of the Year by the Academic Women’s Network, a faculty organization dedicated to conquering barriers that face women in academic positions.

Parker also served on the School of Medicine’s admissions committee from 1988-99.

Her roles at the university didn’t completely define her, however. She was an avid sailor and athlete; she designed and built a one-room cabin where her family spent many weekends; and she enjoyed the outdoors, woodworking and making jewelry.

She also was a wonderful mother and friend, said her daughter Katherine Parker Ponder, MD, a professor in the Division of Hematology at the School of Medicine.

“As a child in an era when not many women worked, I sometimes was asked if it was awful to not have my mother at home every day,” Ponder recalled. “I thought that was a crazy question, as I had a mom who knew everything and could do anything. Despite her busy career, she was always home for dinner and made our Halloween costumes.

“She was also quietly effective at getting others — whether her children or the Health Service staff — invested in whatever they were doing and in working hard to meet their goals.”

Parker is survived by her sister, Margaret Langston Badder; four of her five children, Katherine; Charles S. Parker, MD; Christina Parker, MD; and Sandra Parker Bigg; and 15 grandchildren. Her son Keith L. Parker, MD, PhD, died in 2008. Each of her children graduated from Washington University with either an undergraduate or medical degree.

Parker donated her body to the School of Medicine.

A memorial service will be held at 11 a.m. June 28 at Webster Groves Congregational Church, 10 W. Lockwood Ave., Webster Groves.
In lieu of flowers, memorial contributions may be made to the Mary Langston Parker Scholarship at the Washington University Development Office, Box 1247, 7425 Forsyth Blvd., St. Louis, Mo. 63105. Donations also may be made online.