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Pulmonary Community Loses Pioneering Physician

Dr. Petty

The entire pulmonary community has been saddened by the death of Tom Petty, MD, FAARC. Dr. Petty passed away last Saturday, Dec. 12, at his home in Colorado following a long illness. While colleagues across the country and around the world mourn his loss, however, they are also celebrating his legacy, which included pioneering work on many of the treatments and modalities used in respiratory medicine today.

Emails sent following his death illustrate the great love and respect he received from his closest colleagues. “He left us with fond memories of him as a leader, educator, researcher, innovator, and most of all a patient advocate—yet he was one of the most humble men I have ever met,” says Dennis E. Doherty, MD. “He was a true mentor to thousands, led by example, and was always there for you.”

Gretchen Lawrence, RRT, expressed the disbelief felt by many upon news of his death. “Larger than life people like Tom are supposed to live on and on—and I know he will through the people he mentored over the years. And what a wonderful patient advocate he was! He set an example for all of us.”

Friend to Patients, Respiratory Therapists, and AARC

Dr. Petty was a friend of all patients, especially to those with pulmonary diseases. “Dr. Tom,” as he was often referred to, was also a friend of those who cared for patients. AARC Executive Director Sam Giordano said, “Many physicians, nurses and respiratory therapists owe a great deal to him, not just because he spent countless hours helping us help our patients, but also because he continued to challenge and inspire us to do better.”

Giordano also described Dr. Petty’s close relationship with the AARC. “He helped guide our organization to focus on the needs of our patients. He was truly the father of the spirometry movement, but also tirelessly advocated for home oxygen patients.”

Sam said that many years ago he envisioned lightweight portable oxygen systems that would liberate oxygen dependent patients from being homebound and improve their quality of life. Dr. Petty, in spite of his recent illnesses, never stopped pushing for a better way to identify patients with lung diseases and more effective and patient-friendly long term oxygen therapy. “He has left us a magnificent legacy of service and support for our patients, as well as the challenge to put patients first and to search for ways to bring about more effective diagnosis and treatment. Even though he has received many accolades, awards and honors we somehow think that the best tribute to Dr. Petty is that he was loved by his patients.”

Primary care’s loss was pulmonary’s gain

Although Dr. Petty was destined to become one of the leading pulmonary physicians of his day, his original plan was to become a family physician. After graduating from the University of Colorado Medical School in the late 1950s—where he famously assisted leading researchers Clarence Maaske and Dr. John Chain in their high altitude experiments the summer after his freshman year—he completed an internship at Philadelphia General Hospital. He selected internal medicine as his specialty and went on to spend a year as assistant resident in medicine at the University of Michigan. From there he returned to the University of Colorado, where he completed another residency and fellowship in pulmonary medicine before being named chief resident.

By 1962, Dr. Petty was a member of the faculty at the school, a position he would hold throughout his long career. From 1965 to 1985 he was director of the respiratory care unit at the medical center, and he served as head of the pulmonary medicine division from 1971 to 1983. During his tenure, he was credited with training more than 220 physicians who would themselves go on to lead the way in pulmonary medicine, including David Pierson, MD, FAARC, editor emeritus of Respiratory Care.

Test Your Lungs, Know Your Numbers

Widely known as the father of pulmonary rehabilitation, Dr. Petty founded the National Lung Health Education Program (NLHEP) to promote earlier detection of COPD through the use of spirometry in primary care practices. The organization’s battle cry—Test Your Lungs, Know Your Numbers—has gone a long way in getting the word out to physicians and the public alike. He conducted much of the early work on the acute respiratory distress syndrome as well, and pioneered studies on ambulatory oxygen.

Dr. Petty enlisted the help of respiratory therapists in many of his efforts, and specifically teamed up with the AARC to support the mission of NLHEP. He was a major contributor to the Association’s consumer web site,, where he hosted an “Ask Dr. Tom” column for many years, taking questions from patients, families, and even RTs.

Far reaching impact

In addition to his position at the University of Colorado, Dr. Petty served as adjunct professor of medicine at the University of Kansas, professor of medicine at Rush-Presbyterian-St. Luke’s Medical Center in Chicago, faculty consultant with HealthONE, and consultant to the Denver Veterans Administration Hospital. He held an academic appointment at the University of North Dakota as well, served as a consultant to Fitzsimons General Hospital, and as director of the Webb-Waring Lung Institute.

Dr. Petty served on numerous editorial boards over the years, including those for CHEST, Respiratory Care, the Archives of Internal Medicine, Heart and Lung, and Critical Care Medicine. He was associate editor of the American Review of Respiratory Diseases from 1983 to 1990 and co-editor-in-chief of Seminars in Respiratory and Critical Care Medicine from 1976 to 1996.

He authored or co-authored hundreds of original investigations, and his 1971 book, Intensive and Rehabilitative Respiratory Care, is credited with laying down the core of respiratory care practice.

Honors and awards

Dr. Petty was honored by his colleagues on many, many occasions, receiving, among others, the University of Colorado’s Silver and Gold Award for Excellence, the Michigan Thoracic Society’s Bruce Douglas Award for Outstanding Contributions to Pulmonary Medicine, and the American Thoracic Society’s Distinguished Achievement Award. He was named a fellow of the AARC in 1999, and he received the AARC’s Jimmy A. Young Medal in 2003.


We have been made aware that any donations in his memory be directed to:

Colorado COPD Connection
Joy Grinstead, Co-Chairman
7035 South Ash Circle
Centennial CO 80122

2023 American Association for Respiratory Care