John R. Senior, 94, of Merion Station, a former clinical professor of medicine at the University of Pennsylvania, senior attending physician and director of the gastrointestinal research laboratory at Philadelphia General Hospital, and associate director of science for the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, died Tuesday, Jan. 25, of complications from COVID-19 at Waverly Heights retirement community in Gladwyne.
Specializing in hepatology and gastroenterology, Dr. Senior served in a variety of roles over his 65-year career. He was also director of the Clinical Research Center at Graduate Hospital, vice president for clinical affairs at the Squibb and Sterling-Winthrop Research Institute, and a consultant to pharmaceutical companies in Europe, Japan, and North America.
In the 1970s, he and colleagues conducted groundbreaking research that improved the safety of blood transfusions, and Philadelphia General Hospital, now closed, was the first hospital in the world to screen for an antigen that caused post-transfusion hepatitis.
At the FDA, from 1995 to 2019, Dr. Senior worked in the office of drug safety and was, among other actions, instrumental in creating guidelines in 2009 for the safe treatment of liver disease. He received an FDA award for helping to create digital software that improved clinical assessments of liver ailments, and publicized meetings by scientists and others so effectively they came to be known as the “John Senior meetings.”
“He was always seeking and formulating new ideas,” his family said in a tribute.
Colleagues wrote in a tribute that “it is hard to overestimate the impact” of his work at the FDA and that “he has left a long-lasting legacy in improving the safety of new medications.”
He was president in 1974 of the American Association for the Study of Liver Diseases and in 2017 received its Distinguished Service Award. In a 2017 online article for the AASLD, Dr. Senior wrote of his tenure as president and a member of the governing board. “Others may judge the wisdom of the three transformative projects undertaken in the mid to late 1970s,” he wrote. “But they appear to have been very successful.”
Born July 17, 1927, Dr. Senior was raised in the Germantown section of Philadelphia. He graduated as president of his class at Central High School in 1945, earned a bachelor’s degree in physics at Pennsylvania State University, and graduated in 1954 from Penn’s school of medicine.
He enlisted in the Naval Reserve after high school, served for a year in the Naval Air Transport Service in the Pacific Ocean, and later rose to the rank of two-star rear admiral. He specialized in submarine medicine, was a flag officer for seven years, and retired in 1984.
Dr. Senior completed his internship, residency, and a clinical fellowship at the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania. He spent three years as a research fellow at Massachusetts General Hospital and Harvard University and joined the faculty at Penn in 1962.
He wrote or contributed to more than 60 scientific articles and book chapters, was a consultant to the National Board of Medical Examiners, and was secretary of the American Liver Foundation.
He married Sara Spedden in 1952, and they had son John and daughters Laura and Lisa.
Away from his work, Dr. Senior ran track and field as a young man and set swimming records at Penn State. Later, he played tennis and squash. He studied piano and liked classical music, puzzles, and board games.
He was an avid photographer, drew in sketchbooks, and kept journals. He mentored his children and grandchildren in math and served for 20 years as a summertime resident doctor at the Mohonk Mountain House resort in Upstate New York.
“He wanted to stay active as long as he was able to make meaningful contributions,” said his son. “He was still working full-time from his assisted living home.”
In addition to his wife and children, Dr. Senior is survived by six grandchildren, five great-grandchildren, and other relatives. Two brothers died earlier.
Private services are Thursday, Feb. 24. A celebration of life is to be held later.
Donations in his name may be made to the Mohonk Preserve, P.O. Box 715, New Paltz, N.Y. 12561.