Nuclear medicine pioneer Wagner passes at 85

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Henry N. Wagner, Jr., MD, a pioneer in nuclear medicine who was the first to employ radioactive tracers for the diagnosis of pulmonary embolism and also used himself as a human guinea pig in the first use of PET scanning to study the living chemistry of the brain, died Sept. 25 at his Baltimore home of apparent respiratory failure . He was 85.

Wagner, who spent his entire half-century career at Johns Hopkins in Baltimore, conducted experiments in 1983 and 1984 during which he underwent PET scans to make images of dopamine and opiate receptors in the brain. "The images that resulted from these inquiries enhanced medicine’s knowledge of the brain’s physiology and pathophysiology and paved the way for groundbreaking research in addiction and drug design," according to a Johns Hopkins statement.

His applications of nuclear medicine to pulmonary and coronary artery disease also led to significant advances in that field.

“For 56 years, Henry Wagner was a towering figure in nuclear medicine, radiology and public health at Hopkins—and around the world,” said radiologist Richard L. Wahl, MD, who holds the Henry N. Wagner Jr., professorship in nuclear medicine at Hopkins and is director of its division of nuclear medicine/PET.

During his career, Wagner trained more than 500 radiologists, internists, physicians and scientists, eight of whom went on to become president of the Society of Nuclear Medicine—a position that Wagner himself held from 1970 to 1971. He also served as president of the World Federation of Nuclear Medicine and Biology from 1975 to 1978.

As a researcher and writer, Wagner was the author or co-author of more than 800 publications, including peer-reviewed journal articles, books and chapters. Among his books was a memoir, A Personal History of Nuclear Medicine, published in 2006.

Born in Baltimore, Wagner was a 1944 graduate of Calvert Hall High School. After spending two years serving in the U.S. Coast Guard during World War II, he returned to Baltimore and received both his undergraduate and medical degrees from Johns Hopkins in 1948 and 1952, respectively, earning Phi Beta Kappa and Alpha Omega Alpha honors. He served both his internship and residency at Johns Hopkins.

Following two years as a clinical associate at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and a year as a special postgraduate fellow at Hammersmith Hospital in London, Wagner returned to Johns Hopkins as chief medical resident on the Osler Medical Service from 1958 to 1959. He joined the faculty in 1959 as an associate professor of medicine and radiology.

Wagner also joined the faculty of what now is the Bloomberg School of Public Health as an associate professor of radiological science in 1964. He was physician-in-charge of the Johns Hopkins Hospital’s nuclear medicine division from 1964 to 1973. In 1967, he became a full professor of radiology in the School of Medicine and a full professor of radiological science in the School of Public Health. In 1976, he became director of the division of radiation health sciences in the School of Public Health. He retired in 1995, receiving professor emeritus status in both the School of Medicine and the School of Public Health. 

Wagner's contributions to nuclear medicine brought him numerous honors and awards, including honorary degrees from Washington College in Chestertown, Md., the University of Göttingen in Germany, and the University of Brussels in Belgium. In 1972, Wagner was the first recipient of the Vikram Surhabel Gold Medal from the Society of Nuclear Medicine of India, and in 1993, he received the first Annual Society of Nuclear Medicine President's Award for outstanding contributions to nuclear medicine.

Wagner served as a consultant and adviser to a number of scientific, policy and legislative bodies. He was an advisory expert for the Network of World Health Organization Collaborating Centres and a member of the NIH’s ad hoc advisory board on PET. He also was a member of the FDA's panel for radiology devices and the Institute of Medicine. Wagner served as a consultant in nuclear medicine to Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C., and as a consultant in nuclear medicine to the U.S. Surgeon General.

Wagner and his wife of 61 years, Anne Barrett Wagner, had four children and nine grandchildren.