Eugene Thonar, PhD, a RUSH researcher, teacher, mentor and advocate for people with disabilities, died on Feb. 27. He was 77.
Thonar, a groundbreaking researcher on the effects of aging on cartilage, overcame a disabling illness to become an internationally renowned biochemist and a leader of RUSH’s efforts to accommodate the needs of patients, employees and visitors with disabilities.
The namesake of RUSH’s annual Thonar award and a professor emeritus of biochemistry and orthopedic surgery, Thonar retired in October 2012 after 32 years at RUSH.
“RUSH was very fortunate that Dr. Thonar spent his entire career here. During that time, he made immense contributions as a researcher, a teacher and mentor, and an advocate for people with disabilities,” says Thomas A. Deutsch, MD, former provost of RUSH University and former dean of RUSH Medical College.
“His influence can be seen in the design of the Tower and in many other ways that the medical center accommodates the needs of people with disabilities. Eugene’s impact in this area will continue to be felt long into the future.”
A long climb to an education
Born in Belgium and raised in South Africa, Thonar was afflicted at age 14 with ankylosing spondylitis, a chronic inflammation of the spine that doctors misdiagnosed as tuberculosis. He spent years confined to a bed in a convalescent home, where he received only an hour of schooling a day from visiting teachers.
“I remained hopeful, and I decided I was going to make it. I never doubted I was going to be something, somebody,” Thonar said.
After a visiting doctor from the United States correctly diagnosed his condition, Thonar eventually regained the ability to walk using crutches, but the joints in his spine were permanently fused. “From my head to my knees, nothing bends,” he said.
Despite his limited schooling, Thonar scored well enough on his entrance exams to be admitted to a local university.
“The first year was hell,” Thonar recalled. “I had received no formal education the last three years, plus the fact that I had to go up all these steps. I couldn’t attend all the lectures because the campus wasn’t easily accessible.” Though he failed both chemistry and zoology — the foundations of biochemistry — his freshman year, Thonar successfully completed college and went on to earn a PhD in biochemistry at the University of the Witwatersrand in 1976.
His research thesis, which examined the connection between his illness and a related eye disease, drew favorable attention, and Thonar was invited to come to the United States for a fellowship at the National Institutes of Health. There, he met Klaus Kuettner, PhD, who had just become the chairperson of the Department of Biochemistry at RUSH and recruited Thonar to work at the Medical Center.
Thonar used his disability and his passion for helping others with disabilities to drive his life’s work. Since his arrival at RUSH in 1980, Thonar conducted groundbreaking research examining the effects of aging on cartilage. He co-invented a procedure to manufacture artificial cartilage that can be injected into patients to restore damaged tissue. He also developed a blood test used to diagnose a type of blindness in children. Thonar published more than 250 papers in scholarly journals and more than 400 abstracts.
He was also a member of RUSH’s Americans with Disabilities Act Task Force, which advocates for the needs of patients, students and employees with disabilities at the medical center. Over the years, he was involved in everything from seeing to it that a medical student in a wheelchair could reach an operating table, to arranging for patients with disabilities to receive discounted valet parking. Thonar and other members of the ADA Task Force worked to make sure that the bathrooms in the Tower’s patient rooms swing open in both directions for easy wheelchair access.
Thonar said he was particularly proud of his work on the task force and the naming of an award after him. “It’s an incredible body of people who have worked together to implement many changes that have made RUSH a national leader in accommodating disability, and it’s very gratifying that I was able to be of help,” he said.
“He advocated to never give up,” Thonar’s daughter, Alexandra (Lexi), said of her father. “Those who won the Thonar award every year were people who showed they had the same drive my dad did. Not many people work as hard as he did, which is why I found the winners to be priceless.”
Thonar’s wife, Jennifer, preceded him in death. He leaves behind his son Benjamin and his fiancée Yang, daughter Lexi and two twin granddaughters, Amélie and Zoey, in addition to a multitude of family, friends, and colleagues.
“It’s still so hard talking about my dad in the past tense,” Lexi said. “He cared, infinitely, that everyone was given the same respect, the same expectations and the additional help to those who needed it — especially those who once thought they couldn’t do anything significant. He gave them the tools and helped show them ways to figure things out.”