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Honoring the life and legacy of Jacquelin Perry

Jacquelin Perry conducts research with Vernon Nickel. (Photo/Courtesy of Rancho Los Amigos Foundation)

The professions of medicine and physical therapy recently lost a formidable figure.

Jacquelin Perry, 94 at the time of her death on March 11, was one of the first female orthopaedic surgeons in the United States who had been a professor of orthopaedic surgery and physical therapy at USC and a groundbreaking authority in both fields.

Among her earliest accomplishments in the 1960s was becoming the first surgeon to attempt a complete spinal fusion, which restores breathing and mobility to polio patients suffering from life-threatening spinal curvatures. Decades later, she treated many of those same patients who suffered pain and muscle weakness from the aftereffects of polio, becoming a leading expert in post-polio syndrome.

At the time, she told the Los Angeles Times that, while many doctors join the medical field to save lives, she was primarily interested “in getting handicapped persons functioning again.”

Born in Denver in 1918, Perry moved to California in 1924. After earning a bachelor’s degree in physical education from the University of California, Los Angeles, she served as a physical therapist in the U.S. Army for five years prior to attending medical school at the University of California, San Francisco, where she graduated in 1950.

After completing a residency in orthopaedic surgery, Perry joined Rancho Los Amigos Medical Center in 1955 to help launch a new rehabilitation program. She eventually became chief of the pathokinesiology department and director of post-polio services at Rancho, and was named chief emeritus in 1999.

Concurrently, Perry rose through the ranks of the USC faculty to become a professor of orthopaedic surgery at the Keck School of Medicine of USC and professor of physical therapy in the Division of Biokinesiology and Physical Therapy. She was part of the USC faculty from the 1970s through the 1990s when she was given the title of professor emerita of orthopaedics. Following her retirement from USC in 1996, the university gave her an honorary doctorate degree at the age of 77.

Helen Hislop, then-chair of the division, said the university wanted to recognize Perry for her groundbreaking research and devotion to her patients. Hislop said Perry was one of those rare figures who was willing to help her patients solve problems that nobody else wanted to tackle.

“Dr. Perry was a special friend to us here at USC Biokinesiology and Physical Therapy,” said James Gordon, chair of the division, noting that Perry was not only a former faculty member. She was on the division’s Board of Councilors until 2011 and in 1998 had also created an endowment, called the Jacquelin Perry Fellowship, to support the work of a graduate student.

“Despite her fame, Dr. Perry loved nothing more than seeing patients and teaching students,” Gordon added. “She was always extraordinarily generous with her time and her expertise. Most of all, she was an inspiration to all of us.”

Following the early recognition for her work with polio patients, Perry turned her research and clinical focus to studying gait disorders, becoming one of the giants in that field as well.

She was a pioneer of incorporating computers, video and electronic equipment to analyze the movement of patients’ limbs, joints and muscles. That technology allowed clinicians to pinpoint the exact obstacles to movement, giving them the ability to refine treatments and permitting patients to attain far greater mobility than previously possible.

She also began treating walking disorders — especially those caused by cerebral palsy — stroke and other brain impairments. In the 1990s, she investigated the physics of how muscles and joints behave when spinal-cord injury patients propel themselves in wheelchairs. At the same time, she conducted research on the gait mechanics of below-the-knee amputees walking with modern prosthetic feet.

Perry published more than 270 scientific papers in her career and, in 1992, she wrote Gait Analysis: Normal and Pathological Function, which became the definitive work in the field. Her intellectual drive and scientific accomplishments were always driven by her desire to improve the lives of her patients.

“I believe life is for living, not just existing,” she said in 1996, explaining why she was so devoted to both work and patients.

Despite her advanced age, Perry’s death was unexpected. She remained an active participant in the medical community as a clinician, researcher and author until the day she died.

The Division of Biokinesiology and Physical Therapy is planning several events to honor Perry’s legacy. Following her passing, the division renamed its first annual research poster presentation event, which takes place on April 11, the Jacquelin Perry Research Day.

In addition, the division is planning to hold a celebration to honor Perry’s extensive contribution to the USC community. No date has been chosen for the event, but it will take place in the fall. The Perry Research Day is only open to faculty, staff and alumni of the division, but the memorial will be open to the entire USC community.

Honoring the life and legacy of Jacquelin Perry

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