Rory W. Childers, world-renowned heart disease expert, 1931-2014

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Rory Childers, an internationally known authority on the movement of electrical impulses within the heart and the use and interpretation of electrocardiograms, died Aug. 27 at Southampton Hospital in New York. The 83-year-old Chicagoan and his wife were vacationing when he suffered a cardiac arrest.

A professor of medicine at the University of Chicago, Childers taught medical students, residents and fellows—and through his scholarly writings, physicians worldwide—how to gain the greatest possible information from an electrocardiogram, a two-dimensional graph showing the electrical currents moving through a beating heart. He published extensively on the interpretation of electrocardiograms. He helped computerize the diagnosis of disorders detected by this common test and was considered a pioneer in taking the diagnostic tool out of the hospital and into ambulances, allowing faster treatment for heart attack patients.

“Rory Childers helped set the standards and bring uniformity to computerized interpretation of ECGs,” said Martin Burke, a cardiac electrophysiologist at the University.

“An electrocardiogram is a very sensitive test,” Burke said. “It is routinely performed hundreds of times a day in every hospital around the world, but reading one is far from routine. The details matter. One little squiggle can alter a diagnosis. Rory was the expert on those details, especially the subtle ones that warn of an impending catastrophe.”

Childers was known as the “ECG guy” to every medical student who attended the University of Chicago during the last 50 years.

“In teaching cardiology and physical diagnosis, Rory had a magical combination of a thespian’s humor and scholarly precision that captivated multiple generations of students,” Burke said

Childers, who read an estimated 50,000 ECGs a year, was a core member of international teams assembled by the American Heart Association to standardize and update the interpretation of ECGs, bringing consistency to an array of imprecise and overlapping terms. Work from the project was published in a series of manuscripts between 2007 and 2009. In 2011, he was elected to a three-year term as president of the International Society of Computerized Electrocardiology.

“People always looked up to him,” his colleague Lou Cohen, professor emeritus of medicine, recalled. “He earned their respect, their confidence and their friendship. He was so accomplished at what he did.”

“Rory also created a wonderful atmosphere for learning,” Cohen said. “He had an unlimited supply of on- and off-color stories about cardiology and its practitioners, which he freely shared. No one disliked him; I don’t know how he managed that.”

Roderick (Rory) Winthrop Childers was born June 2, 1931, in Paris, France. He came from a distinguished Anglo-Irish family with deep connections to literature and politics. His grandfather, Robert Erskine Childers, wrote the highly acclaimed novel, The Riddle of the Sands, often called the first espionage novel. He later became an Irish nationalist, and in 1914 used his yacht Asgard to run guns for the Irish volunteers into Howth harbor. He was executed in 1922 during the Irish Civil War.

His son, (Rory’s father) Erskine Hamilton Childers, entered Irish politics in the early 1950s and served in various cabinet positions for more than two decades. In 1973, he was elected the fourth president of Ireland.

Rory Childers entered Trinity College, Dublin, in 1948. He earned his BA with honors in French and English literature in 1953. He continued his medical training at Trinity, with internships in medicine and surgery at hospitals in England and a residency at Royal City of Dublin Hospital in 1956, followed by a one-year fellowship in cardiology at the Massachusetts General Hospital. After one more year of training at Royal City of Dublin, he received his MD from Trinity in 1958.

From 1959 until 1963, Childers ran two of the first cardiac catheterization laboratories in Dublin and was a lecturer in cardiac physiology at Trinity College. From 1960 to 1963 he ran the Irish research end of the Ireland–Boston Diet–Heart Study, the initial phase of which he designed, for the Harvard School of Public Health. During this period he made a trip to New York City to serve as best man at a friend’s wedding, where he met Michele Javsicas. Six months later they were married.

They moved to Chicago in 1963, where he began as a cardiology fellow at the University of Chicago, working with Hans Hecht and Murray Rabinowitz, two leaders in the field. Childers joined the faculty in 1964 as an assistant professor of medicine. At UChicago he rose rapidly through the ranks, becoming an associate professor in 1969 and a professor in 1976. He taught continuously in the Medical School and served as executive director of the Heart Station for nearly 50 years.

During his career, Childers published more than 100 papers and abstracts, primarily on electrocardiography. He lectured widely and received many honors, including the Lifetime Achievement Award from the Electrophysiology Section at the University of California, San Francisco. He was such a popular teacher in the Pritzker School of Medicine that medical students perennially honored him. He won the Teacher-of-the-Year Award from the Cardiology Section so often that in 2005 they renamed it the Rory Childers Teaching Award, “in order,” according to Burke, “to give his colleagues a chance.”

Friends and colleagues also appreciated Childers as an authority on modern Irish history and culture. He had been physician and friend to Brendan Behan, the well-known Irish novelist and poet. He spoke regularly to Chicago-based cultural groups and local media about Irish literature and culture, and appeared on Chicago’s National Public Radio station twice a year, on St Patrick’s Day and June 16, “Bloomsday,” to read from James Joyce’s Ulysses.

“Rory was a fount of knowledge about literature,” said Nicholas Rudall, professor emeritus of classics at the University of Chicago and founding director of the University’s Court Theatre. “In the 1970s he taught himself Russian so that he could read the works of Osip Mandelstam and Anna Akhmatova.” He published articles on both poets.

“He could talk engagingly and amusingly about anything,” Rudall said. “He had good friends in all possible fields. With his passing, such a huge, deep hole is left.”

Childers is survived by his wife Michele; son Peter Childers and wife Rani Gill, of Palo Alto, Calif.; and son Daniel Childers, of New York, N.Y.

The funeral will be private. A memorial service is being planned for the fall. In lieu of flowers, donations should be sent to Doctors without Borders.

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