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Vanderbilt mourns loss of pulmonary medicine pioneer Richard Light

May. 17, 2021, 1:08 PM

Richard Light, MD

by Kathy Whitney

Richard Light, MD, professor of Medicine in the Division of Allergy, Pulmonary and Critical Care, died May 11 from injuries he sustained from a fall. He was 79.

A world-renowned expert in pleural disease, Dr. Light was born and raised in Steamboat Springs, Colorado. He earned his medical degree from Johns Hopkins Medical School, where he also did his residency and pulmonary fellowship.

“Dr. Light was attracted to pulmonary medicine by his engineering background in an era where his talents were ideally suited to the quantification of physiologic tests, including the problems of ventilation/perfusion matching, body plethysmography, spirometry, and exercise physiology,” his colleague and friend John Newman, MD, Elsa S. Hanigan Professor of Pulmonary Medicine, wrote in an essay on Dr. Light that ran in Chest in 2014.

Within seven years of Dr. Light’s first paper being published in the Annals of Internal Medicine in 1972, he had published 12 articles on pleural effusions. During the same interval, he published 20 other articles ranging from treatment of sarcoidosis, to heroin-induced pulmonary edema, to asthma and emphysema. In 2014, Dr. Light had 428 papers, 121 chapters and reviews, two complete books on the pleura, and many presentations around the world.

Dr. Light mentored physicians from all over the world, many of whom have gone on to their own careers in pleural disease.

“Dr. Light has an unusual story and is almost unique in his place in medical history. He wrote one of the classic papers in modern medicine as a resident in 1972 and continued to produce new work and ideas continuously for the last 40 years. He had a most unusual combination of original thinking, mathematical logic, clinical savvy, broad interests, and relentless drive to create new knowledge. His colleagues, friends, students, mentees, and physicians everywhere have benefitted massively from his presence in the field. He was truly a giant in medicine,” Newman said.

Dr. Light came to Vanderbilt in 1997 from the University of California at Irvine.

“Rich was a wonderful mentor, friend, and colleague to all of us in the division,” said Timothy Blackwell, MD, director, Division of Allergy, Pulmonary & Critical Care Medicine and the Center for Lung Research and Rudy W. Jacobson Professor of Pulmonary Medicine.

“Along with being the ‘world’s most famous pulmonologist,’ he was a warm and caring human being who always made time to listen to an interesting case, provide insights about science or clinical care, or just to talk about travel or sports. We will miss him greatly.”

Dr. Light is survived by his wife, Judith; children Mark Light and Sandy Nolden; stepchildren Adrene Despars, Mark Despars, Danita Bistline and Nicole Loranger; and 13 grandchildren. Memorial service plans are pending.

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