Henry Neil Kirkman, Jr., MD, 1927- 2013

Dr. Kirkman was a Kenan Professor Emeritus of Pediatrics and chief of the Division of Genetics and Metabolism in the Department of Pediatrics from 1965 to 1991. He was instrumental in making North Carolina’s newborn screening program one of the finest in the world.

Henry Neil Kirkman, Jr., MD, 1927- 2013 click to enlarge Dr. Neil Kirkman, Jr.

The message below was shared with the Department of Pediatrics and also appeared in the News & Observer. Dr. Francis Collins also remembers Dr. Kirkman as a mentor on his NIH Director's blog. In addition, a selection from the book, From Infancy to Maturity, which focuses on Dr. Kirkman’s distinguished career, can be found online.

Henry Neil Kirkman, Jr., MD, 1927- 2013
September 14, 1927, to May 29, 2013

Dr. Henry Neil Kirkman, Jr., beloved husband, father and grandfather, passed away on May 29, 2013, following a lengthy battle with cardiovascular disease.

Dr. Kirkman was a Kenan Professor Emeritus of Pediatrics at the University of North Carolina School of Medicine. He chaired the Division of Genetics and Metabolism in the School’s Department of Pediatrics from 1965 to 1991. Upon his arrival at UNC, he quickly became known for his skill in diagnosing and treating illnesses in infants, his expertise in inborn errors of metabolism, and his research into treatable genetic diseases in newborns. He was instrumental in making North Carolina’s newborn screening program one of the finest in the world. That program was established to spot and immediately address treatable genetic diseases in newborns, such as “PKU” (phenylketonuria), before they caused the infants to suffer severe brain damage. Identifying babies with such diseases and closely monitoring their treatment until they developed into bright, healthy adults was the aspect of Dr. Kirkman’s career that brought him the most joy and satisfaction.

Dr. Kirkman, also known as Neil, was the son of Henry Neil Kirkman, Sr. and Louise Pruitt Kirkman. Born in Jacksonville, Florida, in 1927, he received a B.S. degree in chemistry from Georgia Tech at age 19, a Master’s Degree in physics from Emory a year later, and his medical degree from Johns Hopkins University in 1952. He served in the U.S. Air Force as a flight surgeon at the end of the Korean War.

Neil and Margaret Lamar Yancey of Atlanta were married in 1950. They had four children. For the past half-century, he and Margaret were active members of Aldersgate United Methodist Church in Chapel Hill and dedicated world travelers. Neil was a runner most of his life, an amateur astronomer and a loyal fan of the UNC Tar Heels, except when they played his beloved Georgia Tech, whereupon he would say, “I just hope neither one embarrasses the other.”

An early devotee of personal computers, Neil imparted his love for computing to grandsons Evan and Jacob when they were preschoolers. Both are now successful computer engineers.

Neil’s skills as a teacher drew praise from medical students. Dr. Francis Collins, who became the Director of the Human Genome Project and now serves as the Director of the National Institutes of Health, states that one of Neil’s med school lectures at UNC inspired him to pursue a career in medical genetics.

Neil’s medical research brought millions of dollars in grants to UNC. He authored or co-authored over 90 articles and reviews in prominent medical or scientific research journals. He served on several National Institutes of Health study sections and training committees, chairing its Genetics Study Section from 1975 to 1978. His accomplishments as a researcher were tied closely to his skills and dedication as a clinician. A recent Facebook message from UNC medical colleague Dr. Ernie Kraybill captured well the fruits of Neil’s career. It described an encounter their colleague, Dr. Bill Hubbard, had just had with a man on a fishing pier at the coast. Upon learning where Hubbard worked, the man stated that his grandson was diagnosed with PKU at birth, then treated and monitored by Neil and his UNC colleagues until he graduated at the top of his high school class. The grandson is attending Wake Forest University on an academic scholarship.

Neil’s beloved wife of 63 years, Margaret Kirkman, passed away in February. He is survived by his children, Alice L. Kirkman of Rockville, Maryland; David Neil Kirkman and wife, Debra Skinner, of Chapel Hill; Dr. Marian Sue (“Suzy”) Kirkman and husband, John Krall, of Chapel Hill; Celia Kirkman of Chapel Hill; and by his granddaughter, Victoria Kirkman, of Rockville, Maryland; grandson Jacob Krall and wife, Jenifer Wing Krall, of Indianapolis; and grandson Evan Krall of San Francisco.

The Kirkman family wishes to thank the many nursing, physical therapy and other medical professionals of The Cedars of Chapel Hill who enabled Neil to live all but his final days in his own home. In lieu of flowers, the family invites colleagues and friends to make a donation to Aldersgate United Methodist Church (Chapel Hill) or N.C. Children’s Hospital (www.ncchildrenspromise.org).

Neil’s funeral service took place at Aldersgate United Methodist Church in Chapel Hill on Tuesday, June 4, at 11:00 a.m.   Walker’s Funeral Service of Chapel Hill was in charge of arrangements.