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Radiologist William Northway, whose research changed care for premature babies, dies at 89

The Stanford pediatric radiologist, after noticing a new and disturbing pattern among lung X-rays of premature infants, forever altered treatment for the smallest babies.

- By Mandy Erickson

Every summer, Bill Northway took his family to Yosemite National Park to camp and fish.
Courtesy of the Northway family

William Northway Jr., MD, an emeritus professor of pediatric radiology at Stanford Medicine who discovered a lung condition among premature infants and found ways to prevent it, died Jan. 26 at his home in San Carlos, California. He was 89.

The cause was complications of Alzheimer’s disease, said his son David Northway.  

“As a junior faculty member, Bill Northway saw something on the X-rays of premature infants and wouldn’t rest until he found an answer,” said Lloyd Minor, dean of the Stanford University School of Medicine. “Just a few years later, his discovery fundamentally changed standards of care and saved countless young lives. It was a milestone moment for medicine and a highlight in a career as a dedicated, caring physician and teacher.”

Northway was a pediatric radiology instructor at Stanford in 1964 when he first noticed that some lung X-rays of premature babies looked like the cross-section of a kitchen sponge: holes connected by a web of filaments.

He found that the babies with the spongelike X-rays had been on ventilators — a new tool in treating premature infants — with at least 80% oxygen for a week or longer. The infants struggled to breathe, had low blood oxygen levels and often had trouble feeding.

Naming the condition bronchopulmonary dysplasia, he set out to discover what caused it. Through studies on mice and guinea pigs, he found that high concentrations of oxygen slowed lung development by inhibiting DNA synthesis.

His paper on the research, published in The New England Journal of Medicine in 1967, prompted neonatologists around the world to lower the oxygen level and reduce ventilation pressure on infants who were intubated. As a result, fewer suffered lung damage.

“That was a sentinel, powerful, influential manuscript that described a whole new entity that no one had appreciated and categorized up to that point,” said David Cornfield, MD, the Anne T. and Robert M. Bass Professor in Pediatric Pulmonary Medicine. “Even decades later, we recognized how important and influential that paper was.”

Stanford-born with lifelong ties

Northway was born Nov. 26, 1932, at Stanford-Lane Hospital, then in San Francisco. He grew up in Palo Alto, California, and attended Stanford University, graduating in 1954 from the college and in 1957 from the medical school. In enrolling at Stanford, he was honoring a family tradition: His father, uncle and a brother all earned bachelor’s and medical degrees from the university; another brother graduated from Stanford’s architectural program; and his mother, a graduate of the university’s former nursing school, worked as a nurse at Stanford.

Northway spent his medical internship at Cornell University and returned to Stanford for his radiology residency.

There was a kindness and a generosity of spirit that characterized his interactions.

In 1961, he took a job as assistant director of radiology at Keesler Air Force Base in Biloxi, Mississippi, where he met his wife, Linda. The two traveled to Paris, France, where Northway served a yearlong residency in pediatric radiology at Hôpital des Enfants Malades and where their first son, David, was born in 1964.

The family returned to Stanford that year, when Northway became an assistant professor of radiology and pediatrics at the university. Their second son, William, was born at Stanford Hospital in 1965. The Northways’ sons later graduated from Stanford. (Northway discussed his family's connection to Stanford and his career in an oral history for the Stanford Historical Society.)

Cornfield, who arrived at Stanford in 2006, encountered Northway in an X-ray reading room and was “fairly shocked to find someone of such renown reading films,” he said. “I was struck not just by his knowledge base but, really, also by his humility, by his engagement with the clinical case as well as the radiographic case.”Promoted to full professor in 1977, Northway was an associate chair of the radiology department from 1985 to 1987 and became director of pediatric radiology in 1994. He formally retired in 1998 but continued to teach and work until 2013.

Northway, Cornfield said, tried to see “the whole patient,” learning as much as he could from the clinicians.

“He really was a person who embraced humanity,” Cornfield added. “There was a kindness and a generosity of spirit that characterized his interactions.”

Fly-fishing and basketball fan

On vacations and upon retirement, Northway loved to explore California, David Northway said. Every summer, the family headed to Yosemite to camp and fish. “He really loved the outdoors,” he said.

William Northway was a lifelong sports fan and athlete. He swam in high school, later played tennis and basketball, and was a diehard fan of Stanford basketball, his son said: “I remember going to games with him and watching him yell at the referees at the top of his lungs.”

He was also a lover of magic books who occasionally performed for children, collected magic books, attended magic shows and joined the International Brotherhood of Magicians.

In 2005, Northway received the J.E. Wallace Sterling Lifetime Achievement Award, and in 2016, the Lucile Packard Children’s Hospital Distinguished Medical Staff Award.

Besides his son David, Northway is survived by his wife, Linda, of San Carlos; brothers John of Redwood Shores, California, and J.D. of Clovis, California; and two grandsons. His son William died in 2016.

Stanford Medicine integrates research, medical education and health care at its three institutions - Stanford University School of Medicine, Stanford Health Care (formerly Stanford Hospital & Clinics), and Lucile Packard Children's Hospital Stanford. For more information, please visit the Office of Communication & Public Affairs site at http://mednews.stanford.edu.

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