On June 26th, 2017 Prof. Dr. Ruth Illig peacefully passed away after a life fulfilled with an untired commitment for children with endocrine diseases. She has been an enthusiastic fighter for the improvement of health of children and adolescents not only in Europe, but with a global perspective.
Ruth Illig was born on November 12th, 1924 in Nürnberg, Germany and her childhood and adolescence in Germany was affected by the second world war. During the war, she was brought from Germany to Switzerland to recover from the stressful situation and physical weakening. After the war, she spent a significant time of her academic training in Bern and Zurich and following graduation from medical school she was accepted by Prof. Guido Fanconi for a pediatric residency at the Kinderspital Zurich, Switzerland. She was promoted to a fellow and tenure position and worked closely with Prof. Andrea Prader. In these early years, she focused on growth disorders and she set up the endocrine laboratory with radioimmunoassay’s for growth hormone and insulin. She was then inspired by the idea to prevent mental retardation of congenital hypothyroidism by an early treatment with thyroid hormones. With her team, she developed a screening test based on the measurement of TSH in dried filter paper blood spots. After a pilot study 1976, she started the first nationwide screening program for congenital hypothyroidism in Europe on January 1st, 1977. In most countries in Europe nationwide programmes were started many years later. With her pioneering assertiveness, she has saved many children from mental retardation and conducted important studies not only on screening methodologies, but also long-term follow-up studies in patients detected by newborn screening.
She was a passionate teacher and numerous pediatric endocrinologists spent their educational or sabbatical periods training with her at the Kinderspital in clinical endocrinology and in Newborn Screening techniques and organization. In 1977 she became the first female professor at the medical faculty of the university in Zurich and she supported with great efforts young female scientists and female physicians. She was a very hard worker and wouldn’t accept any weakness or fuzziness of her pupils and coworkers.
Realizing that many European countries in the 1990s were not able to afford newborn screening, she engaged after her retirement in helping these countries to set up programs for congenital hypothyroidism. She collected funds in a charity foundation and the national screening program in Bulgaria was performed and financed with her guidance and the foundation.
After her retirement in 1986 she established and financed an institution for children with visual impairment in Switzerland and was still engaged in screening projects, not only in Bulgaria, but also in Latin America and other parts of the world. She took care of her physical fitness with swimming in the Zurich lake or in the Lago Maggiore in the south of Switzerland.
Ruth Illig was a founding member of the European Society for Paediatric Endocrinology (ESPE) and the President of the 25th annual meeting in 1986 in Zurich. In 2006 ESPE awarded Ruth Illig with the Outstanding Clinician Award. She has put enormous energy in the foundation of newborn screening for congenital hypothyroidism and gave her best to enhance the health of children with endocrine diseases. She has been a distinguished pioneer and role model for many, especially female pediatric endocrinologists world-wide and we will certainly miss her.
Annette Grüters-Kieslich, Heidelberg
Toni Torresani, Zürich