Kenneth J. Ryan, MD

ryanDr. Kenneth Ryan was born on August 26, 1926. He served in the United States Navy during World War II and then attended Northwestern University. In 1952, he graduated magna cum laude from Harvard Medical School. He completed residency training in both internal medicine (Massachusetts General Hospital and Columbia-Presbyterian Hospital) and obstetrics and gynecology (Boston Lying-In Hospital and Free Hospital for Women).

In 1961, Dr. Ryan became Chairman and Arthur H. Bill Professor of Obstetrics and Gynecology at Case Western Reserve University, where he served until 1970. From 1970 to 1972, he was Chairman and Professor of Obstetrics and Gynecology at University of California at San Diego School of Medicine. In 1973, he returned to Harvard as Chairman and the Kate Macy Ladd Professor of Obstetrics, Gynecology, and Reproductive Biology. He retired as Department Chairman in 1993. He served as the President of the Society for Gynecological Investigation and the American Gynecological and Obstetrical Society and was a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and the Institute of Medicine.

Throughout his career, Dr. Ryan demonstrated a strong commitment to basic science research. His main scientific focus was the biology of steroidogenesis. The biochemistry of steroidogenesis plays an important role in the treatment of endocrine dependent cancers such as breast and prostate cancer, and in fertility treatments. Among his most important discoveries were: 1) the identification of the aromatase enzyme system which converts androgens to estrogens, 2) the development of the “two-cell” theory of steroidogenesis, 3) demonstration of metabolism of sex steroids by neuroendocrine tissues, 4) the discovery that 21-hydroxylase is a cytochrome-dependent enzyme, and 5) the demonstration that estradiol and estrone are interconverted. Through his leadership he inspired many obstetrician-gynecologists to pursue basic research careers. He was an author on more than 300 scientific publications.

In addition to his leadership in basic research, Dr. Ryan played a seminal role in the development of the field of medical ethics. From 1974 to 1978, he served as the Chairman of the United States Department of Health and Human Services, National Commission for the Protection of Human Subjects of Biomedical and Behavioral Research. A major focus of his efforts was to better understand the ethical principals that should guide researchers when they interact with children, prisoners, adults with handicaps, and individuals incapable of providing informed consent.

In the 1980s, a major focus of Dr. Ryan’s efforts became the application of ethics to issues of reproductive health. He was a forceful advocate of the right of reproductive choices for women. Dr. Ryan served as Chairman of the Ethics Committee of the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (1984-1988), the Chairman of the Department of Health and Human Services Scientific Issues in Human Transplantation Research Panel (1988-1989), and Chairman of the American Fertility Society Ethics Committee (1993-2001). He also served as the Chairman of the Department of Health and Human Services, Commission on Research Integrity.

Dr. Ryan was an inspirational and thoughtful leader who helped shape the structure of modern obstetrics and gynecology. He lived a life of ideas and ideals. His ideas helped to improve the practice of obstetrics and gynecology. His ideals inspired us to have the courage to improve ourselves and the world around us. At the Boston Hospital for Women, and its successor, the Brigham and Women’s Hospital, he built a strong foundation for our success in clinical care, teaching, and research. He was a trusted colleague and a good friend. He will be greatly missed.

In addition to his wife of 53 years, Dr. Ryan leaves a daughter, Alison R. Glassey of Willits, California; two sons, Kenneth J. Ryan, Jr., of Weston, and Christopher E. Ryan of Chicago; and five grandchildren.