Benjamin Spargo, innovative kidney pathologist, 1919-2014

Benjamin Spargo, SB’48, SM’52, professor emeritus of pathology and a renowned renal pathologist, died in his sleep on May 30 in Hyde Park. He was 94 years old.

Spargo was a pioneer in applying the electron microscope, a scarce resource at the time, to clinical diagnosis. In the late 1950s, he was the first to develop diagnostic criteria and demonstrate the value of routine use of the electron microscope for biopsies of the kidney. He and his team methodically mapped out the microscopic structural changes to kidney cells associated with various renal diseases. They eventually convinced other pathologists that focusing on consistent correlations between changes in structure and altered function could dramatically improve diagnoses.

Headshot of Spargo

Benjamin Spargo

Although many physicians were initially skeptical of the new technique, a 1973 study by Spargo and a colleague from Yale showed that in 11 percent of cases, electron microscopy led to a substantially different diagnosis than light microcopy, which was the current standard. In an additional 36 percent of cases, electron microscopy could refine and sub-classify the diagnosis. It could also document changes caused by advancing disease, or by treatment. Such studies slowly convinced others in the field that electron microscopy could provide a more accurate diagnosis and even predict response to treatment.

“Physicians from other medical centers sent their challenging diagnoses to Ben for analysis,” said nephrologist Gary Toback, professor of medicine at the University of Chicago. “He assembled an enormous referral network and he would routinely share their most interesting cases with his team. It was a source of continuing education.”

Pathologists came from all over the world to study renal pathology with Spargo, especially electron microscopy, which was not yet available in most hospital pathology departments.

“His use of this large and expensive instrument led to revolutionary progress in the understanding of a variety of specific kidney diseases, especially those affecting the glomerulus, which filters out toxins,” said Marshall Lindheimer, professor emeritus of medicine and of obstetrics & gynecology at the University of Chicago.

From 1960 until his retirement in 1994, Spargo’s team applied electron microscopy to a wide range of diseases affecting the kidneys as well as other organ systems, including skin disease, the cardiac complications of potassium depletion and monitoring rejection following a kidney transplant.

One classic observation made with the electron microscope was Spargo’s description, working with C.P. McCartney and R. Winemiller in 1959, of a lesion specific to preeclampsia: a pregnancy-related hypertensive disorder that is one of the three major causes of death to mother and unborn child worldwide.

“He coined the term, ‘glomerular capillary endotheliosis,’ now found in every textbook,” Lindheimer said. “This discovery enabled others to perform clinical studies based on renal biopsies that led to a better understanding of preeclampsia.”

From Sergeant to Professor

Benjamin H. Spargo was born on August 11, 1919, in Six Mile Run, Penn. He graduated from Broad Top High School in Defiance, Penn., in 1937. He began college while working in Chicago. During this period, he met Barbara Scollard, a young woman from Watford City, N.D., who was training to become a nurse. They married in 1942.

World War II refocused their plans. Spargo joined the United States Army Air Force in 1941 and was based in March Field, Calif. His interest in science was recognized when he joined the Army and he served as the director of a medical laboratory.

Spargo attained the rank of sergeant before leaving the military in 1946. He quickly resumed his education. In 1948, he graduated from the University of Chicago with a bachelor’s degree in biological sciences and began medical school, also at the University. In 1952, he completed his master’s degree in pathology and graduated, with honors, from the medical school.

After a one-year internship at the University of Michigan, Spargo returned to the University of Chicago for his pathology residency. He stayed at the University for the remainder of his career, joining the faculty as an assistant professor in 1955. He was promoted to associate professor in 1960 and professor in 1964, a post he held until he took emeritus status in 1994.

Spargo’s research was consistently supported by highly competitive federal grants. In 1964 he received a Research Career Award from the National Institutes of Health’s Heart and Lung Institute. He was subsequently awarded a Public Health Service Research Career Award. Two later grants from the NIH’s Heart, Lung and Blood Institute supported his study of ultrastructural renal changes associated with kidney disease from 1985 until the end of his career.

Spargo published more than 100 research studies and book chapters and was an author or co-author of several books about renal pathology. His text book, Renal Biopsy Pathology, with Diagnostic and Therapeutic Implications, published in 1980 by Spargo, Seymour and Ordonez, was used by many medical schools. He also served on the editorial boards for several leading journals, including Human Pathology, the American Journal of Kidney Disease and the American Journal of Pathology.

“Ben is fondly remembered by those who trained at the University of Chicago for his teaching skills,” Lindheimer said. “Long before we could project everything from a microscope to a screen, he had a microscope with multiple eye pieces, and would describe findings to nephrology faculty, fellows, residents and students who remained captivated in his office for hours.”

Spargo is survived by his daughter, Patricia Spargo; and one grandchild. A memorial service has been scheduled for 2 p.m. on Saturday, June 28, at Montgomery Place, 5550 South Shore Drive. In lieu of flowers, donations should be sent to the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

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John Easton
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