Obituary: Dr. Allan L. Drash / Pioneer in diabetes research and treatment

Aug. 13, 1931 - Aug. 3, 2009

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A world-renowned pioneer in diabetes, Dr. Allan L. Drash eventually experienced the disease firsthand.

At age 50, Dr. Drash was diagnosed with the disease he'd spent a successful career researching and battling.

Dr. Drash, 77, of Regent Square and Morehead City, N.C., died Monday from leukemia with complications from Alzheimer's disease and diabetes.

Despite his own health problems, Dr. Drash would redefine diabetes management and educate generations of doctors in how to reduce medical and behavioral complications in children with diabetes.

In time, his bold ideas were accepted, making an aggressive insulin regimen, exercise, diet and blood-glucose monitoring the staples of diabetes care. He lectured worldwide and turned Children's Hospital of Pittsburgh into a mecca for physicians interested in studying diabetes.

Ronald E. LaPorte, with the World Health Organization Collaborating Centre, said Dr. Drash was "the master of herding cats," referring to medical professionals.

"We were all very different people going in a hundred different directions, but somehow Allan managed to get us going into a powerful direction," Dr. LaPorte said. "One thing I liked about Allan is that he never said no to wild ideas."

Dr. Drash based his breakthrough approach on more than 300 medical-scientific articles he wrote or co-wrote. As his 64-page curriculum vitae reveals, his studies defined type 1 diabetes and detailed its prevalence worldwide.

Working to convince doctors that the traditional laid-back approach to diabetes care fostered complications, beginning in the 1960s he championed tight control of blood-sugar levels, lifestyle changes, dietary measures and exercise as keys to control and longevity.

Early in his career, he realized that even the nation's best hospitals lacked programs for diabetes care, mainly due to lack of research.

"There was no training in diabetes," he said in a 2007 interview with the Post-Gazette. "I was very aware that medical diabetes management was a jumble."

Dr. Drash, a native of Clarksville, Tenn., played high school football against coaching legend Bobby Bowden and beat him. They became lifelong friends.

While Dr. Drash's football career faded in college, his academic career blossomed. He graduated from Vanderbilt University in 1953, then from the University of Virginia School of Medicine in 1957. After becoming a physician at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore, he entered the U.S. Air Force and served as a major before returning to Johns Hopkins.

In 1966, he accepted a position at Children's Hospital of Pittsburgh.

There he established a diabetes care program that included education and a team approach involving the patient, family, physicians, dietitians and educators.

In a landmark 1967 study, Dr. Drash showed that most children with diabetes were insulin deficient, rather than merely insensitive to the insulin they produced, proving two types of diabetes -- type 1 and type 2.

Next he collaborated with the University of Pittsburgh Graduate School of Public Health in worldwide studies that revealed genetic, cultural and lifestyle components to the disease, with poorer nations having fewer cases of type 2, and nations with opulent food supplies facing a diabetes epidemic.

Dr. Drash helped convince the National Institutes of Health to fund the landmark Diabetes Control and Complications Trial, which in 1992 proved that aggressive treatment reduced heart and kidney disease, blindness and circulation disorders leading to amputations.

Dr. Drash served as president of the American Diabetes Association, which named him Outstanding Clinician in the Field of Diabetes in 1988. Today he's recognized worldwide as the pioneer in the treatment philosophy routinely used today to manage diabetes.

"Allan Drash's name is inseparable from the front rank of leaders in pediatric diabetes advocacy, education and research in the last third of the 20th century, and his influence is driving much of the present activity in these areas," said Thomas Danne, president of the International Society for Pediatric and Adolescent Diabetes.

Dr. Martin Silink, president of the International Diabetes Federation Institute of Endocrinology and Diabetes, described him as "a pioneer and giant in the pediatric diabetes field."

While he spent considerable time in research and travel, Dr. Drash kept his focus on patients.

Linda Siminerio, executive director of the University of Pittsburgh Diabetes Institute, worked side by side with the "icon" whose death has spawned e-mails from India, Australia and Japan. "Thirty years ago, he had ideas we're just talking about today," Dr. Siminerio said. "He was way ahead of the game."

Yet, patients always came first. Once he helped to cook tacos at a diabetes camp for insulin-dependent children before they went to bed. His daughter, Allison Drash of Pittsburgh, said her father dressed up as Santa Claus for his patients and always revealed "an amazing sense of play as a doctor and father."

"He had a reverence for life," Ms. Drash said. "He had a manner of dealing with scared children and even more frightened parents. He was like a bear who would come in and say, 'You've got diabetes, but we'll work it out, and do it this way, and you will be OK.'

"So many children's lives are better now as a result," Ms. Drash said. "Patients call me and tell me how wonderful he was.

"He set the benchmark."

In addition to his daughter, Dr. Drash is survived by his wife, Diane Dixon Drash; a son, James W. Drash of Cincinnati; a sister, Marilyn D. Thomas of Boone, N.C.; and three grandchildren.

A memorial service will be held at 11 a.m. tomorrow at the Third Presbyterian Church, 5701 Fifth Ave., Shadyside, with plans under way for another memorial service in September. Memorials are recommended to the Western Pennsylvania American Diabetes Association.

David Templeton can be reached at or 412-263-1578.


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