Oscar Crofford: On the horns of a revolution

Oscar Crofford and the landmark trial that changed diabetes forever

Editor’s Note:  This profile was written in 2003. For an update on Oscar Crofford, see story in June 2008 issue of House Organ

Bill Snyder
Published: July, 2003

Photo by Dean Dixon
To some of his former colleagues in the world of diabetes research, Dr. Oscar B. Crofford is now living the life of Riley, tooling around the bucolic hills of his Arkansas farm on his four-wheeler, checking on his herd of Black Angus cattle.

What they may not realize is that the retired Vanderbilt University professor approaches his new passion with the same intensity and humor with which he led a landmark study that established the value of rigorous blood glucose control a decade ago.

“I’ve learned more about labor and delivery and care of the newborn from these cows than I ever did in medical school,” he says with a chuckle, his sky-blue eyes twinkling under a shock of white hair.

The tale of the study, called the Diabetes Control and Complications Trial (DCCT), is worth repeating, for it revolutionized the treatment of the disease. Crofford’s life story is equally compelling, for it illustrates how an adventurous spirit can achieve a breakthrough in understanding that dramatically improves the lives of patients.

Born in Chickasha, Okla., in 1930, Crofford attended high school in Memphis, and after graduation, decided to Vanderbilt. Because of the post-war shortage of physicians, he was able to enroll in an accelerated program, and earned both his bachelor’s and medical degrees in seven years. He and the former Jane Long, a recent Vanderbilt nursing school graduate, married during his residency in 1957.

After a two-year stint as a medical officer in the Navy to fulfill his military obligation, Crofford returned to Vanderbilt for a fellowship in clinical physiology under the late Dr. Elliott V. Newman, a pioneering physician-scientist who established Vanderbilt’s federally funded Clinical Research Center – one of the first in the nation.

Newman “was really one of the first of a new breed of physicians who bridged the gap between clinical medicine and basic science,” Crofford recalls. “He told me, ‘Here’s your lab. Go in there and discover something.’ It was sort of the sink-or-swim philosophy of science.”

Newman also became a trusted advisor and counselor. “He was a wonderful scientist and a wonderful human being,” Crofford said. “I’d say my character and sense of how to work with people I’ve learned mostly from Elliott Newman … I probably modeled my life to a large extent after (him) and the way he treated me.”

Vanderbilt in the early 1960s was brimming with scientific excitement, in large part because of the “brain trust” in metabolism research attracted by the trail-blazing physiology professor Charles “Rollo” Park. “Those were the grandest years ever of medical science,” Crofford maintains. “We were just in the forefront of the technological revolution in medicine, the scientific revolution, things that were never possible in the past … That’s where the excitement was. That’s where the fun was.”

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