Medical pioneer Dr. Richard Koch dies at 89

Posted Oct. 08, 2011, at 12:36 p.m.
Last modified Oct. 09, 2011, at 6:34 p.m.
Iris Schneider | LA TIMES

LOS ANGELES — As a prisoner of war in Germany during World War II, Richard Koch chose his life’s work after reading one of the few books in the camp’s meager library — the medical biography “The Doctors Mayo.”

Liberated in 1945 after 13 months in captivity, he sped through his undergraduate years at the University of California, Berkeley by persuading the school to give him course credit for his bombardier training in the Army Air Forces.

In 1951, Koch — pronounced “coke” — earned a medical degree from the University of Rochester in New York, joined Children’s Hospital Los Angeles and embarked on a groundbreaking career in developmental disabilities.

He pioneered mobile clinics that brought medical services to the disabled and led a landmark effort to screen newborns for a type of mental disability that can be treated with a no-proteindiet, effectively putting an end to the disorder.

Koch, who had a heart condition, died Sept. 24 at his Los Angeles home, said his wife, Jean. He was 89.

He was an early advocate against institutionalizing the developmentally disabled, which was commonplace in 1955 when Koch was named director of the hospital’s newly established clinic for the study of mental disabilities.

The traveling clinics he created evolved into dedicated regional centers that enabled children to remain home with their families or live in a non-institutional setting.

“There was such a need, such a hunger. You can never forget that,” Koch said in the 2006 book “Over Here: How the G.I. Bill Transformed the American Dream.”

After California Gov. Pat Brown signed legislation in 1966 to create a regional-center system in California, Koch served as the founding director of a Children’s Hospital pilot facility now known as Frank D. Lanterman Regional Center. More than 20 were eventually established around the state.

As a researcher, Koch devoted much of his career to preventing disability, specifically phenylketonuria, commonly called PKU, a hereditary metabolic disorder that can cause mental disability.

He successfully lobbied for the first mandatory screening programs in the country, urging California and other state legislatures to require mandatory screening for PKU in newborns with a simple blood test.

Early discovery allows for prevention, since the faulty gene that causes PKU enables the amino acid phenylalanine — contained in many foods — to build up in the blood and cause brain damage. PKU babies were placed on a tasteless no-protein diet and kept on it until they were about 10 years old, when their brains were sufficiently formed.

By the late 1960s, the disease was largely under control. But around 1980, health officials noticed that female PKU patients saved from disability were giving birth to babies with mental disabilities and other disorders. PKU mothers who followed a regular diet were developing high blood levels of phenylalanine that damaged the fetus.

“Logically, we should have thought of it,” Koch told the Los Angeles Times in 1996. “But I think we were so enthused about these first PKU patients even being normal. That in itself was a shock.”

Unable to bear the thought that “a small army of patients that had been saved from this condition was producing a new flock of disabled children,” Koch secured a grant to deal with the problem, according to the book “Over Here.”

With Koch coordinating the effort, Children’s Hospital served as the hub of a national drive to collect data on adult PKU patients and encourage those who were pregnant to return to the no-protein diet to increase their chances of having a healthy baby.

Almost until the end of his life, Koch continued to treat PKU patients whom he first saw as infants decades ago, seeing them at his home near the hospital he retired from about five years ago.

“He was the most unassuming, gracious, gentle, kind-hearted man,” said Dr. Linda Randolph, head of medical genetics at Children’s Hospital. “You would never know how great he was and what a tremendous contribution he made in the fields of disabilities and PKU from a casual conversation. He never tried to impress anybody.”

He was born Nov. 24, 1921, in Dickinson, N.D., the sixth of nine children of Valentine Koch, a sheep farmer, and his wife, Barbara. His family moved to Petaluma when Richard was 7 and his father worked on a poultry farm.

At a USO dance, Koch met his future wife, who was playing marimba in the band. He headed off to war soon after they married in 1943.

In April 1944, Koch and his fellow Army Air Forces crew members were shot down while flying over Germany in a B-24 Liberator. He was immediately captured. While in the POW camp, he bartered for a typewriter and started a POW newspaper.

Once he was home, he bought an Army surplus Jeep for $150 that came in a crate, assembled it and drove it cross-country to medical school.

With his family, he often backpacked, once hiking 110 miles round-trip from Mineral King in Sequoia National Park to Mount Whitney and trekking 150 miles on the John Muir Trail.

He took a leave of absence in 1970 to spend a year in Peru with his family as a medical volunteer with Project Hope. Koch also taught medicine at the University of Southern California.

Well into his 70s, the dedicated environmentalist could be spotted riding his bicycle down Sunset Boulevard to work, his tie flapping in the wind.

In addition to his wife, Koch is survived by three daughters, Jill, Christine and Leslie, all of Los Angeles; two sons, Tom and Martin, both of Ridgecrest, Calif.; 10 grandchildren and nine great-grandchildren.

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