Robert H. Heptinstall, MD
January 5, 2021
Dr. Robert H. Heptinstall, a retired head of the Johns Hopkins Department of Pathology, a kidney disease expert and a World War II medical veteran, died of old-age complications Jan. 5 at his home in Lutherville. He was 100 and formerly resided in Roland Park.
"Heppy was one of a kind," said Dr. Ralph Hruban, a Hopkins colleague. "He was brilliant without effort, a gifted writer, a wonderfully colorful character and a distinguished pathologist and researcher. He had an amazing memory, particularly for people, and he used it to bring the past to life with delightful stories.
"He was also a man of great substance wrought from extraordinary life experiences. He didn't tolerate fools, and took great pleasure deflating pretense with his sharp wit. Most of all, he was a dear friend and supporter. There will never be another like him," said Dr. Hruban, director of the Department of Pathology.
Born in Keswick, England, he was the son of James Heptinstall, a business owner, and his wife, Mabel. He earned a medical degree in 1943 from Charing Cross Hospital Medical School in London and joined the Royal Army Medical Corps. He served in India, what is now Myanmar, Thailand and the Dutch East Indies until 1947.
He was trained in Jessauer in India for parachute training in Force 136 and sent to prisoner-of-war camps.
"Terrible things are going on and people are in urgent need of treatment," he said.
He found Malay workers ordered by the Japanese to build a railroad.
"It was the most appalling site," Dr. Heptinstall said in a Hopkins oral history. "They had been terribly neglected, they had been very cruelly treated and several used to die each day."
After his military service, Dr. Heptinstall trained as a pathologist at London's St. Mary's Hospital and worked in the lab of Alexander Fleming, who discovered penicillin.
"My father told us that when he went for his interview to begin his pathology training, Fleming asked him two questions," said his daughter, Gillian M. "Jill" Heptinstall of Baltimore. " 'Are you married? Can your father pay the tuition?' "
Dr. Heptinstall recalled that he rarely saw Dr. Fleming, who had been awarded a Nobel Prize. He did have a memorable brief conversation.
"I went to him once. I wanted to do an experiment and I wanted a small amount of equipment and needed some money. It was a trivial amount — about 50 pounds," Dr. Heptinstall said in the oral history. "He shook his head and said in his Scottish voice, 'Heptinstall, I can't let you have it. We have an equation in this department: Brains times Equipment is a Constant.' So that is the thing I remember mainly from Fleming. He taught me frugality."
Another daughter, Caroline Heptinstall Jones of Lutherville, said: "He had a great wit and wisdom. People often compared my father to a character out of Dickens. He had a way of telling a story. He could make anything sound amusing."
In 1954 Dr. Heptinstall was awarded an Eli Lilly Traveling Fellowship that brought him to Hopkins. He later joined the faculty and was named a professor in 1967.
He was appointed director of the Department of Pathology and pathologist-in-chief of the Johns Hopkins Hospital in 1969.
He is credited with creating the discipline of diagnostic renal pathology and establishing the department's Renal Biopsy Service.
A Hopkins biography said he was "impatient with pretension, had a quick wit, and was a vivid storyteller."
"He smoked a pipe and he'd sneak a cigarette. He enjoyed a drink and always had wine with friends. Until near the end, he was active and independent," said his daughter, Gillian. "He loved and read history. His hero was Harry Truman."
He was the author of a leading kidney textbook, now called "Heptinstall's Pathology of the Kidney." The American Journal of Kidney Diseases said, "The impact of this book on generations of pathologists and nephrologists cannot be underestimated."
Dr. Heptinstall was a past president of the American Society of Nephrology, among other scientific organizations, and was given numerous awards.
His wife of 60 years, Ann Porter Heptinstall, died in 2010.
In addition to his two daughters, survivors include two sons, Jonathan R. Heptinstall of Highland, New York, and James N. Heptinstall of Delmar, New York; eight grandchildren; and a great-granddaughter.
A son, David Heptinstall, died in 1965. Another son, Christopher Heptinstall, died in 2006. A daughter, Bridget Heptinstall, died in 2004.
View obituary »