Obituary: John W. Olney, 83, professor of psychiatry and neuropathology

John W. Olney, MD, the John P. Feighner Professor of Psychiatry and a professor of pathology and immunology, died Tuesday, April 14, 2015, at his home in St. Louis after a battle with lung cancer and amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS). He was 83.


A longtime leader in the Department of Psychiatry at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis, Olney remained active in research until the last few days of his life.

He studied neurotransmitters in the brain and how they can become toxic under certain circumstances. He was the first scientist to propose that when high concentrations of the neurotransmitter glutamate were released from brain cells, the glutamate could overexcite cellular receptors and destroy cells through a process he named “excitotoxicity.” The mechanism Olney described was later found to be involved in nerve cell degeneration in traumatic brain injury and brain disorders such as stroke and epilepsy.

“John was truly a unique individual who had an enormous impact in psychiatry and across many scientific and clinical disciplines,” said Charles F. Zorumski, MD, the Samuel B. Guze Professor, professor of neurobiology and head of the Department of Psychiatry. “He was an innovator and a pioneer. Literally, the field of studying glutamate as an excitotoxin, and even the word ‘excitotoxicity’ itself, can be traced to John’s seminal studies in the late 1960s and 1970s. And his most recent work on the effects of drugs on the developing brain has changed how pediatric anesthesia is done.”

Olney came to Washington University in 1964 as a resident in psychiatry and joined the faculty in 1968. He started his medical training at age 28, leaving a job in the U.S. Army to pursue a medical degree when his sister was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. Born in Marathon, Iowa, Olney earned his bachelor’s and medical degrees from the University of Iowa.

In addition to working with glutamate, Olney studied the effects of anesthetic drugs, such as ketamine, on the developing brain. He did important and much-cited research into fetal alcohol syndrome, concluding that if a pregnant woman consumed as few as two drinks, the alcohol could cause nerve cells in the fetal brain to die. And Olney found that as the brain continued to develop in the years after a baby was born, anesthetic drugs also had the capacity to do damage. Consequently, he recommended that elective surgery be avoided in very young children whenever possible.

Olney was a member of the Institute of Medicine of the National Academy of Sciences. He was a recipient of the Wakeman Award for Research in the Neurosciences, the Dana Foundation Award for Achievement in Health and the Lifetime Achievement Award from the Society of Biological Psychiatry.

Olney is survived by Elfriede Olney, his wife of 57 years; two children, Margaret Ann Olney and John M. Olney; and six grandchildren. Another son, Stephen James Olney, passed away in 1984.

A funeral will be held Friday, April 17, at Bopp Chapel, 10610 Manchester Road, in Kirkwood, Mo. Public visitation will be from 3-5 p.m., with the funeral beginning at 5 p.m.

A memorial service at the School of Medicine will be held from 1-4 p.m. Sunday, June 28, in Connor Auditorium at the Farrell Learning and Teaching Center on the Medical Campus. A reception will follow in the FLTC atrium.

Memorial contributions may be made to the Washington University Thoracic Oncology Research Fund; 7425 Forsyth Blvd., Campus Box 1247; St. Louis, MO 63105.

Washington University School of Medicine’s 2,100 employed and volunteer faculty physicians also are the medical staff of Barnes-Jewish and St. Louis Children’s hospitals. The School of Medicine is one of the leading medical research, teaching and patient-care institutions in the nation, currently ranked sixth in the nation by U.S. News & World Report. Through its affiliations with Barnes-Jewish and St. Louis Children’s hospitals, the School of Medicine is linked to BJC HealthCare.