The Washington Post

Jacquelin Perry, surgeon who helped polio patients and analyzed the human gait, dies

Dr. Jacquelin Perry was the Los Angeles Times Woman of Year in Medicine in 1959, in her La Mirada home. She died March 11. (Los Angeles Times)

The country was in the grip of a polio epidemic in the 1950s when orthopedic surgeon Jacquelin Perry began performing spinal surgeries in Downey, Calif., that helped paralyzed survivors of the disease regain mobility.

She became a leading authority on post-polio syndrome. She was also known for her analysis of the human gait, publishing a definitive textbook on the subject in her 70s.

Dr. Perry, who had Parkinson’s disease but was still practicing as of last week, died March 11 at her home in Downey. She was 94. The death was announced by Rancho Los Amigos National Rehabilitation Center, with which she had been affiliated since 1955.

During World War II, Dr. Perry served as a physical therapist in the Army, treating polio patients in Hot Springs, Ark.

After earning a medical degree at the University of California at San Francisco, she joined Rancho Los Amigos and collaborated with Vernon Nickel on polio cases. For spinal surgery patients, the pair developed the halo, a metal ring still in use today that is screwed into the skull, immobilizing the spine and neck.

When the Los Angeles Times honored her as the 1959 Woman of the Year in science, Dr. Perry pointed out that “most doctors go into medicine to save lives. I’m more interested in getting handicapped persons functioning again.”

After a brain artery blockage forced Dr. Perry to stop operating, she founded Rancho’s Pathokinesiology Laboratory in 1968 to analyze the biomechanics of walking. She served as chief of the department until 1996 and continued to consult in semi-retirement.

“Dr. Perry was a visionary pioneer in the field of rehabilitation sciences and gait analysis,” said Judith M. Burnfield, director of the Institute for Rehabilitation Science and Engineering at Madonna Rehabilitation Hospital in Lincoln, Neb.

With physical therapist colleagues at Rancho, Dr. Perry established an observational system used by clinicians around the world to determine why patients are having trouble walking and how to manage the problem.

Her research on patients with severe deficits arising from neurologic and orthopedic injuries continues to guide present-day therapeutic approaches, said Burnfield, who helped Dr. Perry update her textbook, “Gait Analysis,” first published in 1992.

The first cases of post-polio syndrome were not seen until 1980, according to Dr. Perry, and they surprised doctors. The condition stems from further weakening of overworked nerves and muscles damaged years before by polio’s initial infection.

The same drive that had helped polio patients overcome the disability as children got in the way in adulthood, according to Dr. Perry, who instructed patients to downshift physically to protect themselves.

The only child of a clothing shop clerk and a traveling salesman, Dr. Perry was born May 31, 1918, in Denver and moved to California the year she turned 6. She never married and had no immediate survivors.

At UCLA, she earned a bachelor’s degree in physical education in 1940. She taught swimming for one day before quitting to attend physical therapy school at Walter Reed hospital in Washington.

After earning her medical degree in 1950, Dr. Perry was recruited to help launch Rancho’s rehabilitation program after completing her residency at UC San Francisco.

From 1972 to the late 1990s, she was a professor of surgery at the University of Southern California’s medical school, where she established a scholarship for study of the human gait.

— Los Angeles Times

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