Eugene Thonar, PhD, overcame both a disabling illness and a poor childhood education to become an internationally renowned biochemist and a leader of Rush’s efforts to accommodate the needs of patients, employees and visitors with disabilities. The namesake of Rush’s annual Thonar award and an emeritus professor of biochemistry and orthopedic surgery, Thonar retired in October after 32 years at Rush.
“Rush has been very fortunate that Dr. Thonar spent his entire career here. During that time, he made immense contributions as a researcher, a teacher and mentor, and an advocate for people with disabilities,” says Thomas A. Deutsch, MD, provost of Rush University and dean of Rush Medical College. “His influence can be seen in the design of the Tower and in many other ways that the Medical Center accommodates the needs of people with disabilities. Eugene’s impact in this area will continue to be felt long into the future.”
A Long Climb to an Education
Born in Belgium and raised in South Africa, Thonar dreamed of being a professional soccer player as a child, but at age 14 he was afflicted with ankylosing spondylitis (a chronic inflammation of the spine), a condition that for many years his doctors misdiagnosed as tuberculosis. As a teenager, he spent years confined to a bed in a convalescent home, where he received only an hour of schooling a day from visiting teachers.
“I remained hopeful, and I decided I was going to make it. I never doubted I was going to be something, somebody,” Thonar says.
Fortunately, a visiting doctor from the United States correctly diagnosed his condition, and with time and effort, Thonar regained the ability to walk using crutches, even though the mistreatment of his illness had led to all the joints in his spine being permanently fused. “From my head to my knees, nothing bends,” he says.
Despite his limited schooling, Thonar scored well enough on his entrance exams to be admitted to a local university. His stepfather enrolled him, insisted he attend — despite Thonar’s fear of climbing the school’s many stairs — and drove him 30 miles to and from campus every day.
“The first year was hell,” Thonar recalls. “I had received no formal education the last three years, plus the fact that I had to go up all these steps. I couldn’t attend all the lectures, because the campus wasn’t easily accessible.” Though he failed both chemistry and zoology — the foundations of biochemistry — his freshman year, Thonar successfully completed college and went on to earn a PhD in, yes, biochemistry, which he received in 1976.
His research thesis, which examined the connection between his illness and a related eye disease, drew favorable attention, and
Thonar was invited to come to the United States for a fellowship at the National Institutes of Health. There, he met Klaus Kuettner, PhD, who had just become the chairperson of the Department of Biochemistry at Rush and recruited Thonar to work at the Medical Center.
Since his arrival at Rush in 1980, Thonar has conducted groundbreaking research examining the effects of aging on cartilage. He co-invented a procedure to manufacture artificial cartilage that can be injected into patients to restore damaged tissue. He also developed a blood test used to diagnose a type of blindness in children. Thonar has published more than 250 papers in scholarly journals and more than 400 abstracts.
In addition, Thonar was a member of Rush’s Americans with Disabilities Act Task Force, which advocates for the needs of patients, students and employees with disabilities at the Medical Center. Over the years, he’s been involved in everything from seeing to it that a medical student in a wheelchair could reach an operating table in order to conduct a clinical rotation in surgery, to arranging for patients with disabilities to receive discounted valet parking when they come to Rush for appointments. Thonar and other members of the ADA Task Force worked to make sure that the bathrooms in the Tower’s patient rooms swing open in both directions for ease of wheelchair access.
“I think Rush has gone further than almost any medical center in the country and probably in the world in making this place accessible,” Thonar says. “For many years now, Rush has taken a proactive approach to improving the Medical Center for people with disabilities.”
The significance of his influence in this area is evident in the fact that the ADA task force chose to name its annual award for him. “Of all my accomplishments, there’s nothing I’m more proud of than the award being given in my name, and the work I’ve done with the task force,” Thonar says. “It’s an incredible body of people who have worked together to implement many changes that have made Rush a national leader in accommodating disability, and it’s very gratifying that I was able to be of help.”