UCSF pediatrician and endocrinologist Selna Kaplan dies at 83

Selna Lucille Kaplan, MD, PhD, a longtime leader in the field of pediatric endocrinology who helped build a world-class training program at the University of California, San Francisco.

Selna Lucille Kaplan, MD, PhD, a longtime leader in the field of pediatric endocrinology who helped build a world-class training program at the University of California, San Francisco, and who served as a role model for women in medicine across the United States, died on July 21, 2010, at age 83.

Kaplan was a professor of pediatrics at UCSF for nearly four decades. A pioneer in the scientific examination of various growth disorders, she was among the first to study the use and effects of human growth hormone treatment and served as the principal investigator for the first national trials of manufactured growth hormone in the 1980s.

With her longtime colleague and collaborator Melvin Grumbach, MD, a professor emeritus and former chair of pediatrics at UCSF, Kaplan made invaluable contributions to our current understanding of the hormonal changes that occur throughout development. They created ultra-sensitive biochemical tests to measure exquisitely small levels of hormones in babies and children. These tests enabled them to meticulously characterize the hormonal regulation of human growth from fetal life through puberty.

“She was the policewoman in our lab, always demanding perfect accuracy and keeping track of every last detail,” said Grumbach. “She was one tough lady.”

That toughness came in a small package, as the smartly dressed Kaplan stood less than five feet tall. It also came with a genuine dedication and devotion to her patients, some of whom she continued seeing long after she achieved emeritus faculty status at UCSF in 2000.

Kaplan served as president of the Lawson Wilkins Pediatric Endocrine Society, the Society of Women in Endocrinology and the Western Society for Pediatric Research. She won the Ayerst Award for Distinguished Service from The Endocrine Society in 1987 and the Fred Conrad Koch Award – The Endocrine Society’s most prestigious honor – jointly with Grumbach in 1992.

“Medicine truly was where Selna’s heart was,” said Grumbach. “She put all her time and energy into it, and it showed.”

A native New Yorker, Kaplan graduated cum laude from Brooklyn College in 1948. Determined to become a doctor at a time when medical schools were not welcoming women with open arms, Kaplan outfoxed the system by first going to graduate school at Washington University in St. Louis. She earned a PhD in anatomy in 1953, then transitioned into a medical program at the same institution and completed her MD in 1955.

After finishing medical school, Kaplan returned to New York for an internship at Bellevue Hospital in Manhattan, followed by a residency at Kings County Hospital in Brooklyn. In 1958 she joined Grumbach as one of his first postdoctoral fellows in the newly formed division of pediatric endocrinology at Columbia University.

Eight productive years later, the dynamic duo relocated to San Francisco. Grumbach had been appointed chair of pediatrics at UCSF and recruited Kaplan to take over the operations of the pediatric endocrine research laboratory.

Grumbach fondly recalls Kaplan disembarking the airplane in California with pipettes in hand, ready to get down to business – which is exactly what she did. During her time at UCSF, Kaplan published more than 200 research papers and book chapters, and presented at countless meetings around the world.

Beyond her copious publication record, perhaps Kaplan’s greatest impact was through the people she trained. Many of the postdoctoral fellows and visiting scientists who learned from and worked with her now head their own laboratories, work as professors and serve as chairs for pediatric departments across the country. Many will remember sharing a meal with Kaplan at her home and receiving a fruitcake from her each year, without fail, during the holidays.

“She had a special way of mentoring fellows and instilling real confidence in them,” noted Grumbach.

Kaplan’s mother and father also relocated to San Francisco in the 1960s and shared a home with her throughout their lives. They gladly took care of most daily tasks around the home so their daughter could devote all of her time and energy to her passion.

A memorial service will be planned at a later date. For further information contact Dennis M. Styne, MD, at 916-734-7098.

Contributions in Kaplan’s memory will support research and education in pediatric endocrinology. They can be sent to the UCSF Division of Pediatric Endocrinology, 513 Parnassus Avenue, Suite S-672, San Francisco, CA 94143-0434.

UCSF is a leading university dedicated to promoting health worldwide through advanced biomedical research, graduate-level education in the life sciences and health professions, and excellence in patient care.