Kent Thornburg, Ph.D., has been a stalwart fixture around Oregon Health & Science University since 1973, but he has decided it is time to take — at least a small — step back.
At his retirement he is the founding director of the Bob and Charlee Moore Institute for Nutrition & Wellness, director of the Center for Developmental Health and interim director of the Knight Cardiovascular Institute. Thornburg has been integral in the creation of the field of Developmental Origins of Health and Disease and the establishment of OHSU as a world leader in this research. He has also been a principle reason countless faculty have chosen OHSU as their home.
OHSU salutes Thornburg upon his retirement and appointment as professor emeritus. School of Medicine Dean David Jacoby, M.D., has appointed Leslie Myatt, Ph.D., professor of obstetrics and gynecology at the OHSU School of Medicine and the Bob and Charlee Moore Endowed professor, to succeed Thornburg as director of the Moore Institute. Thornburg also appointed Myatt to succeed him as director of the Center for Developmental Health. Jacoby has named Joaquin Cigarroa, M.D., professor of medicine and division head of cardiology, as director of the Knight Cardiovascular Institute that Thornburg stewarded as interim director since 2021.
“Dr. Thornburg has had a global impact on our understanding of developmental health and chronic cardiovascular disease risk,” Jacoby said. “He is a luminary yet also a humble, caring man, and he has brought great leadership and vision to every area of OHSU that he has touched. On a personal note, it was when I met Dr. Thornburg during my recruitment visit to OHSU more than 20 years ago that I decided this was where I wanted to spend the next part of my career. I am grateful to him for his service and many contributions.”
Infectious optimism, endless curiosity
Thornburg is a rarity in academic medicine today. He spent his youth just down the road from OHSU on a farm in Dundee. He stayed close to home, graduating from George Fox University and then completing a Ph.D. in developmental physiology at Oregon State University. From there he moved on to OHSU, and other than a post-doctoral year at Washington University in St. Louis, and a year teaching at the University of Manchester, it is at OHSU he has stayed.
The slight man with a bald pate, intense blue eyes and a ready smile striding briskly across campus was a common sight over the years. His mind is always whirring, from dreaming up big ideas to tackling the smallest detail. His optimism is infectious and his scientific curiosity endless. He can expound on any scientific query posed to him from the basic biologic underpinnings to the latest research findings.
He befriends airplane seatmates, writes amusing tales of his many travel escapades, has a kind word for everyone he meets and truly listens when people tell him their stories. His faith in humankind is endless and he genuinely believes he can help make the world a better place. All of this has made him a world class scientist, mentor and leader as well as an invaluable colleague and friend.
During his time at OHSU, Thornburg taught countless students, acted as Ph.D. thesis supervisor to seven students and hosted 23 post-doctoral fellows in his lab. He is also extremely proud to count 10 babies born to students or post-docs while working in his lab.
In 1993 he formed the OHSU Heart Research Center to coordinate all of the cardiac-related research happening across OHSU, to encourage cross-disciplinary cardiac research and to share that research with the community. The Heart Research Center eventually became the Center for Developmental Health following the establishment of the Knight Cardiovascular Institute by a gift from Phil and Penny Knight in 2013. This name change aligned with a shift in Thornburg’s research.
Chance encounter changes science
A chance dinner swayed his career path. In 1988, Thornburg sat next to English epidemiologist David Barker, M.D., Ph.D., at a small scientific meeting in Italy. Barker convinced him to collaborate on a radical new hypothesis stating that the environment before birth had an impact on an adult’s risk for dying from heart disease. Thornburg’s research into the placenta’s role in the development of the heart aligned perfectly with Barker’s hypothesis.
Barker would eventually spend the final 10 years of his career splitting his time between the University of Southampton and OHSU in order to collaborate with Thornburg, and build OHSU into an international leader in this emerging field of research now known as the Developmental Origins of Health and Disease, or DOHaD.
As DOHaD research progressed, it became clear the role nutrition has before and during pregnancy and during the first two years of life in establishing lifelong chronic disease risk. In 2012, following a $25 million pledge from Bob and Charlee Moore of Bob’s Red Mill to establish an institute focused on translating the science DOHaD, Thornburg became the founding director of the OHSU Bob and Charlee Moore Institute for Nutrition & Wellness. He has built that institute into a national model for translating science to inform programs, policies and curriculum to improve population health.
It’s always been about the heart
In 2021, Thornburg agreed to become the interim director for the KCVI. He worked tirelessly to bring together clinicians and researchers stretched thin from the pandemic and leadership changes to reinvigorate the institute. He brought two additional groups into the KCVI, Pediatric Cardiology and VA Cardiology, in order to ensure OHSU could be a leader in cardiovascular disease throughout the life course. The institute now coordinates research, education and clinical care from risk factors developed during conception to end-of-life.
From his initial research interests in fetal heart development, Thornburg build a storied career that has led to fundamental changes in our understanding of chronic disease risk. Along the way he has connected his work directly with the people most affect by it and ensured the next generation of scientists and health care providers are able to follow in his footsteps.
While he has stepped away from day-to-day leadership, Thornburg will remain actively involved in several projects of the Moore Institute, including the Nutrition Oregon Campaign, which has active community-based work across Oregon and a developing DOHaD documentary.