J. Kiffin Penry

1929 - 1996

Kiffin Penry died at his home in Winston-Salem, North Carolina on March 31, 1996 at the age of 66 years. Despite his long battle with one complication after another of diabetes, which gradually robbed him of mobility, vision, and finally, life itself, he vigorously conducted his other battle on behalf of sufferers from epilepsy throughout the world to the very end of his life, and in this as in everything he did, he invested every ounce of his energy.

Kiffin Penry was born in Denton, North Carolina, and attended Wake Forest College and Bowman Gray School of Medicine, obtaining his M.D. degree in 1955 and garnering academic honors, including membership in Phi Beta Kappa and Alpha Omega Alpha. He interned at the Pennsylvania Hospital in Philadelphia and took his residency in internal medicine and neurology first at the North Carolina Baptist Hospital and thereafter at the Boston City Hospital. He was greatly influenced by his teachers Richard Masland and Martin Netsky at Bowman Gray and by the late Derek Denny-Brown at "the City". His training was thus a fortuitous blend of clinical excellence, humanitarian approach, pathological correlations, and Sherringtonian physiology. His own attention to detail, inductive reasoning, and focus on the task at hand accomplished the rest. He was aided by an indelible memory for people, places, and events and by a puckish sense of humor.

His early years after completion of his training were spent in the U.S. Air Force as Chief of the Neurology Service at Maxwell Air Force base, Alabama, at Tachikawa, Japan, and at Andrews Air Force base in Maryland. In 1966, he joined the National Institute of Neurological Diseases and Blindness as Head of the Section on Epilepsy and Chief of Special Projects in the collaborative and field research section. His subsequent years as Director of the Neurological Disorders Program and the Chief of the Epilepsy Branch at the National Institute of Neurological and Communicative Disorders and Stroke (NINCDS) (as the Institute was renamed) were monumentally productive and laid the groundwork for advances in epilepsy in the United States for the next 25 years. He returned to Bowman Gray School of Medicine at Wake Forest School of Medicine at Wake Forest University as Professor of Neurology and Associated Dean for Research Development in 1979.

At about the time that Kiffin joined the National Institutes of Health (NIH), a review of status of epilepsy, which had been conducted by Preston Robb of Montreal, indicated a need to upgrade research and services for persons with epilepsy. Individual centers throughout the world, especially at Heemstede, Sandvika, Bethel, and Marseille, were actively integrating patient care and research. NINCDS, under the leadership of Richard Masland, and subsequently that of Edwards F. MacNichol, Jr., and Donald Tower, made a commitment to include epilepsies among other neurologic entries in the Institute's efforts to promote a worldwide program in neurology and the neurosciences. Kiffin Penry spearheaded the effort, which resulted in greatly increased emphasis on basic and clinical research and training facilities. He devoted much of his energy to the American Epilepsy Society and to the International League Against Epilepsy and became the President of both organizations, in which he played a major role for many years. He chaired many committees of the Epilepsy Foundation of America, of which he remained an honorary lifetime Director. He helped to cement relations between academia and the NIH, from which resulted a network of master agreements for the study of new antiepileptic drugs. He mobilized the biotechnology industry into enhancement of pharmacologic research and its applications through the Antiepileptic Drug Development Program, which he founded with Ewart Swinyard and Harvey Kupferberg with the aid of B. J. White and Roger Porter. The Antiepileptic Drug Development Program has been responsible for filling a cornucopia with a new generation of antiepileptic drugs whose development is based on improved knowledge of basic mechanisms of the epileptic discharge. He encouraged the development of video EEG monitoring and early recognized the benefits of serum monitoring on antiepileptic drug levels for better management of patients with epilepsy. At the same time, he mounted major conferences, national and international, resulting in landmark publications such as the series on Basic Mechanisms of the Epilepsies, Antiepileptic Drugs, and Advances in Epileptology.

In 1974, largely through Kiffin Penry's efforts and the assistance of David Daly and Ellen Grass, the Commission for the Control of Epilepsy and Its Consequences was authorized by Congress; the implementation of its recommendations has done more than any other single activity to set the course for epilepsy management and the breaking down of psychosocial barriers in this country. The network of Comprehensive Epilepsy Programs was the culmination of his endeavors. In all these activities, his successes were the result of foresight, common sense, and meticulous preparation, which characterized his organizational style.

After his return to Winston-Salem, Kiffin innovated the Epilepsy Minifellowships, of which this is the 10th year anniversary. The minifellowships consists of week-long seminars taught by dedicated faculty five or six times a year for epilepsy felllows and senior residents as well as practitioners in the filed. To date, more than 2, 200 minifellows have attended the courses. In 1995, Kiffin was honored by a Festschrift at Winston-Salem, which was published in Epilepsia, marking advances to which his minifellows contributed in full measure.

His honors and awards have been many and include the Public Health Service Meritorious Service Medal, the Distinguished Alumnus Award of Bowman Gray School of Medicine, the Epilepsy Foundations of America Pierce Bailey Award, the William G. Lennox Award of the American Epilepsy as well its Distinguished Clinical Investigator Milken Family Foundation Award, and the Epilepsy Foundation of America's 25th Year Anniversary Award. One never saw Kiffin without his International Epilepsy Ambassador pin prominently displayed on his lapel.

At the very center of his life and loyalty was his family. His wife, Sarah, has been a steadfast tower of strength throughout his career "in sickness and in health" and as a member of the international epilepsy family.

Kiffin Penry will be missed by hundreds of friends and colleagues around the world in many different ways, as he took a very individual interest in every one he met. The epilepsy movement has lost one of its greatest champions.

Fritz E. Dreifuss
Department of Neurology 
School of Medicine
University of Virginia
Charlottesville, VA, U.S.A.

Epilepsia, Vol. 37, No. 10, 1996