Leonard Jarett, 81, distinguished scientist, professor, and Penn pathology department chair

Leonard Jarett, 81, formerly of Bryn Mawr, a distinguished researcher, professor, and chair of the department of pathology and laboratory medicine at the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine, died Saturday, Jan. 13, of complications from Parkinson’s disease at Waverly Heights, Gladwyne.

Camera icon Courtesy of the family
Leonard Jarett

Dr. Jarett assumed chairmanship of Penn’s pathology department in 1980, and under his leadership of nearly 20 years it gained a reputation as one of the best in the nation.

He revamped the department to improve clinical service, teaching and research. He also computerized operations, attracted talented trainees and senior faculty, and widened the department’s scope to include both anatomic pathology and laboratory medicine.

“This resulted in improvements in the quality and turnaround time of [test] results and increased [consultation],” David B. Roth, Penn’s current chair of pathology and laboratory medicine, said in a statement.

After the upgrades were certified by the College of American Pathologists, national laboratories and regional organizations began asking the department to do tissue typing, drug screening, toxicology, and other specialized services, Roth wrote.

In 1985, Dr. Jarett was named the Simon Flexner Professor and Chair. A decade later, in recognition of his contributions to Penn and medical research, the department established a professorship in his name.

“He was really proud of that,” said his daughter, Stacy Jarett Levitan. “They had a big ceremony, and the whole family attended. He was pleased the university recognized him in that way.”

Dr. Jarett arrived at Penn in 1980 after heading the Washington University Medical School’s division of laboratory medicine. He had made his mark early. His first research paper, written as a first-year medical student at Washington University, was frequently cited by other researchers.

Among his many awards, Dr. Jarett was recognized with the prestigious Gold-Headed Cane Award from the American Society for Investigative Pathology for his long-term contributions to the field of pathology.

“He loved that award,” his daughter said. “It [really] was a gold-headed cane, in a display case with velvet, that you could walk with.”

Despite the public recognition, Dr. Jarett, who had trained hundreds of physicians and scientists to fight disease, was waging a private war with illness. In 1993, he had been diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease, a progressive brain disorder. There is no cure.

In 1998, Dr. Jarett stepped down from his role as department chair. A year later, at age 62, he told the Inquirer of his struggle with slurred speech, physical deterioration, involuntary body movements, and medicines with harrowing side effects.

“It’s the most utter helplessness you can imagine,” he said. “It’s frustration beyond belief.”

He agreed to try deep brain stimulation, a then-experimental treatment in which electrodes are planted in the brain to stop the erratic body movements.  It helped for a while. At the time, he was among the patients with the greatest longevity who had undergone the treatment, his daughter said.

“Being a research scientist, it meant a lot to him to keep trying these new therapies so the doctors could test them,” his daughter said. He directed that at his death, his brain be donated to science for further study.

Born in Lubbock, Texas, he graduated from Lubbock High School and then the Rice Institute in Houston in 1958, and received his medical degree from Washington University of St. Louis in 1962.

He rose at Washington from assistant pathology professor to full professor in 1973. He also served as director of the laboratories of the affiliated Barnes Hospital until 1979.

Dr. Jarett’s research focused on the mechanism of insulin action at the molecular level. In 1980, the Juvenile Diabetes Foundation honored him for the work with its David Rumbough Award.

He authored more than 150 original papers, served on editorial boards for nine journals, and published many books and book chapters.

In addition to his daughter, Dr. Jarett is survived by his wife, Arlene K.; children Douglas and Jennifer; and two grandchildren.

Funeral services were Wednesday, Jan. 17.

Memorial contributions may be made to JChai (Judith Creed Horizons for Achieving Independence), 274 S. Bryn Mawr Ave., Bryn Mawr, Pa. 19010, or the University of Pennsylvania’s Parkinson’s Disease Center, 330 S. Ninth St., Philadelphia 19107.