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A Pediatric Geneticist Gives Back

The son and grandson of oil field workers during Standard Oil’s glory days, Jess Thoene ’68 dreamed of becoming a doctor.

A combination of fortuitous timing, scientific inspiration and philanthropy helped him make the journey from Southern California to the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine and a groundbreaking career as a pediatric geneticist.

It was Ross McAllister, Class of 1912, who ministered to Thoene’s family members if they fell ill on company time. But maybe more importantly, McAllister fueled Thoene’s curiosity. He shared with the boy a set of microscope slides, pre-World War II medical illustrations and his Osler medical textbook. McAllister eventually gifted Thoene his entire medical library.

Thoene and his wife, Marijim, are now making a gift of their own to ensure other would-be doctors will be able to pursue their dreams.

Ahead of Jess Thoene’s 50th reunion this summer, the couple established a $1.5 million scholarship fund with a gift from their estate. They were thrilled to learn that an initiative coinciding with the school’s 125th anniversary would boost their support by $125,000.

Thanks to the generosity of an anonymous donor, throughout 2018, the school is offering matching funds for endowed scholarships, starting at $12,500 on an $87,500 gift, further increasing the impact of a supporter’s donation. The goal is to increase the scholarship endowment by $12.5 million by year’s end.

Thoene knows well the difference a scholarship can make. In the 1960s, two years of medical school tuition cost more than his father earned in a full year of work. Applying to medical schools while completing a chemistry degree at Stanford University, he worried finances might be the barrier that kept him from the same school his mentor had attended.

“Having the scholarship was absolutely fundamental,” says Thoene, an active professor emeritus at the University of Michigan. “It made it possible for me to do something that was so important in my life. Just as that gift was essential to me, I could perhaps lend that bootstrap up to someone else.”

Jess and Marijim met in kindergarten in California and married 53 years ago. Marijim holds a degree in liturgical music from the Peabody Conservatory.

After Jess graduated, he served in the Air Force for three years. The Thoenes eventually settled in Michigan.

There, Thoene set up a lab dedicated to the study of cystinosis. The rare genetic metabolic disease causes the amino acid cysteine to accumulate in the organs, destroying kidney function. Without treatment, children fail to thrive and never exceed the 50th percentile height for a 3-year-old.

Thoene was a major force behind the 1983 Orphan Drug Act, which sped development of drugs that help a small number of patients. Today, patients treated with cystinosis drugs can typically wait until age 20 for a kidney transplant and thrive afterward.

Thoene still sees patients in Michigan and works as a visiting professor at Tulane University, but he is cutting back. He has trained another doctor to take over his lab.

Just as he has inspired future researchers, Thoene hopes his gift to Johns Hopkins encourages other alumni to pledge their support for scholarships.

“Having the scholarship was absolutely fundamental. Just as that gift was essential to me, I could perhaps lend that bootstrap up to someone else.”

—Jess Thoene