Richard Koch, M.D. – 1921-2011 – A Man Who Made Things Possible

Dick Koch was truly an original. His charm, dedication and humor engaged anyone who worked with him. His deep commitment to his patients made them feel more like family members than clients – and his vision and determination changed society.

Described as a man of “passionate empathy,” Dick Koch exemplified the art of the possible. He lived in a world of “Why not? Let’s try” – and that made all the difference in the lives of literally thousands of people.

Most individuals are fortunate if they have even one area of endeavor where they make a mark. Dick had several – as renowned pediatrician and PKU researcher, as a pioneer in the field of improved services for individuals with developmental disabilities, as teacher and as social justice activist.

Richard Koch was born in Dickinson, North Dakota in 1921, the sixth child in a family that eventually included seven boys and two girls. The family moved to Petaluma, California when he was a child and he attended elementary and high school there, graduating in 1941 and earning a scholarship at the University of California at Berkeley.

In 1942 he enlisted in the Army Air Corps and was trained as a bombardier. He served in the 8th Air Force based in England until his B-24 was shot down on April 9, 1944. He spent 13 months as a prisoner of war at Stalag Luft 1 in Germany.

After the war, he was accepted at the University of Rochester School of Medicine in New York, graduating in 1951. He interned at Childrens Hospital Los Angeles where he eventually joined the staff and became a Professor of Pediatrics at the Keck School of Medicine at the University of Southern California.

Dr. Koch was an early advocate in the fight to keep people with developmental disabilities out of institutions, provide support for families to care for children at home, and ensure community living options for adults. In 1957 he started a traveling clinic that brought a team of professionals to 13 Southern California counties to serve children with developmental disabilities. It was groundbreaking work that would lead to a system of service delivery and care for those with disabilities that would become a model for the nation. In 1966 Governor Pat Brown signed legislation that used this model to create the regional center system in California.  Eventually 21 regional centers were established throughout the State. Dr. Koch became the first director of Childrens Hospital Regional Center – one of two pilot centers – which would later be renamed Frank D. Lanterman Regional Center.

For a number of years, Dr. Koch also provided medical consultation to the Los Angeles County Jail in assessing individuals who were suspected of having a developmental disability.

In the early 60s, he was President of the California Council for Retarded Children (which became the Association for Retarded Citizens, California) and of the American Association on Mental Retardation, now called the American Association of Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities.

In 1970 he took a sabbatical leave and he and his family spent a year in Peru where he was a volunteer for Project Hope.

He left Lanterman in 1975 to serve as Deputy Director of the State Department of Health.

Over a span of more than 50 years, Dr. Koch conducted extensive research on Down syndrome, PKU (Phenylketonuria which causes mental retardation), and rare metabolic disorders. He was the principal investigator in the Collaborative Study of Treatment of Children with Phenylketonuria sponsored by the National Institutes of Health and principal investigator of the International Maternal Phenylketonuria Collaborative Study. In 1962 he was actively involved in getting legislation passed mandating newborn screening for all babies born in California.  Since 1966 when the legislation passed, hundreds of babies have been diagnosed at birth and treated for severe genetic disorders. Dr. Koch was also involved in research to establish guidelines for getting FDA approval for biopterin for the treatment of PKU in the United States. This product is now available under the trade name Kuvan and is the newest treatment for many with PKU. He also pioneered in the treatment of persons with PKU who are disabled because they were born before newborn screening. In 2004, a new group home specifically for late-treated persons with PKU was named in his honor – The Koch-Vagthol’s Metabolic Residential Care Center in Burbank, California.

Dr. Koch has had more than 200 articles published in peer-reviewed professional journals.

He married Jean Holt in 1943 and they raised five children. The family spent many summer vacations back-packing in the Sierra, including a 110-mile round trip hike from Mineral King to Mt. Whitney and a 150-mile hike on the John Muir Trail. He and Jean were active in efforts to save Mineral King from commercialization in the 1970s. This battle was won and Mineral King is now part of Sequoia National Park.

Throughout his life, Dick Koch was a pioneer – beginning with the traveling clinics and continuing through years of advocacy for the regional centers – forging a path to a more fulfilling life for individuals with developmental disabilities.

He touched and changed for the better the lives of hundreds of babies born with PKU, turning a life of potential mental retardation into a future of infinite possibilities.

With his gentle wisdom and firm leadership he mentored many doctors, nurses, social workers and administrators into a lifelong career working in regional centers and special education programs.

His commitment to the environment and social justice helped make California a better place.

Even late in life, his energy defied description.In “retirement” he continued to bicycle to work seeing patients, visiting jails, consulting with regional centers, speaking at international symposia – and fishing, skiing, backpacking and gardening.

Dr. Koch is survived by his wife, Jean, his daughters, Jill Koch Tovey, Christine Koch Wakeem and Leslie Koch, and by his sons, Tom and Martin. He also leaves 10 grandchildren and 9 great-grandchildren.

He passed away peacefully in his home on Saturday, September 24, 2011. He lived a full, adventurous life and accomplished much. A memorial service and reception will be held at All Saints Church in Pasadena on Saturday, October 8 at 4:30 p.m. For more information about the memorial, contact the Koch-Young Resource Center at 213.252.5600 or kyrc@lanterman.org. The favor of a reply is requested if you plan to attend the memorial service.

Donations in his memory can be made to Mount Hollywood Congregational Church, 4607 Prospect Ave., Los Angeles, CA 90027 or to the Guthrie-Koch Scholarship Fund at 6869 Woodlawn Ave. NE #116, Seattle, WA 98115-5469.