Obituaries

Dr. Allen Crocker, 85; offered care and hope to children with Down syndrome

 Dr. Allen Crocker, shown with a 3-year-old patient in 2005, directed the Developmental Evaluation Center at Children’s Hospital Boston for many years. He also taught at Harvard.
JOHN TLUMACKI/GLOBE STAFF/FILE
Dr. Allen Crocker, shown with a 3-year-old patient in 2005, directed the Developmental Evaluation Center at Children’s Hospital Boston for many years. He also taught at Harvard.

When Isaiah Lombardo was born nearly 16 years ago with Down syndrome, his mother looked to the future and saw only uncertainty.

“I didn’t know prenatally, so it was a surprise,’’ Angela Lombardo said. “It was very overwhelming and scary.’’

For the first couple of years, doctors cautioned her to anticipate the worst. Then she took Isaiah to Children’s Hospital Boston, where Dr. Allen C. Crocker offered a very different perspective.

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“Every other doctor would list all the things that could go wrong,’’ Lombardo said. “He was the person who said, ‘He’s a wonderful little boy.’ Dr. Crocker was the first person who allowed families to celebrate, even though they had a child with a disability.’’

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Dr. Crocker, who directed the Developmental Evaluation Center at Children’s Hospital for many years and who offered care and hope to generations of children with Down syndrome, died Oct. 23 in Newton-Wellesley Hospital of respiratory failure, a few months after surgery to remove a nonmalignant brain tumor. He was 85 and lived in Natick.

“So many people said he was the first person to say, ‘Congratulations,’ ’’ said Lombardo, who now works at Children’s Hospital as coordinator of the Down Syndrome Program. “So many people said he was the first to say, ‘Your child is perfect.’ ’’

As agile with research as he was with patients and parents, Dr. Crocker was coauthor of “Developmental-Behavioral Pediatrics,’’ first published in 1983 and now in its fourth printing.

He also taught at Harvard Medical School and the Harvard School of Public Health, and had been a key part of Boston’s medical circles for decades. Many years ago, Dr. Crocker and Dr. Sidney Farber, who lent his name to the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, conducted research together.

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Patients always came first, though. Dr. Crocker worked to change society’s attitudes while one by one, he changed the lives of families.

More than a half-century ago, he entered the field at a time when people averted their eyes from his patients.

“They were not full citizens,’’ Dr. Crocker told the Globe in 2005 when, at 80, he was still practicing medicine and still going to Children’s Hospital every week. “Their classrooms were in the basement, next to the heating system. And in terms of budgeting and personnel and so forth, they were not viewed compassionately, except by a few pioneering individuals.’’

As one of the pioneers, Dr. Crocker inspired others to follow.

“People with disabilities - or ‘exceptionalities,’ as Allen would often write - deserve respect from the communities that they enrich,’’ Dr. Brian Skotko, a protégé who is now a Down syndrome specialist at Children’s Hospital, said at Dr. Crocker’s memorial service Sunday. “He knew it. He believed it. He fought for it, and he motivated others to do the same, including me.’’

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In a 2006 interview with Children’s News, a publication at Children’s Hospital, Dr. Crocker measured the distance traveled in his career.

‘Every other doctor would list all the things that could go wrong. He was the person who said, “He’s a wonderful little boy.’’ Dr. Crocker was the first person who allowed families to celebrate, even though they had a child with a disability.’

“Our success is symbolized by the way both pediatrics and the public feel about children with special needs,’’ he said. “The little ones with Down syndrome around here are full of important personal successes. I think I can fairly claim that the families of children with Down syndrome are no longer grieving; they are celebrating.’’

Born in Boston, the younger of two brothers, Allen Carrol Crocker was the son of a research chemist, and early on set his career sights on something smaller than people.

“My first choice was entomology,’’ he told the Globe in 2005. “I thought insects were cool.’’

Born on Christmas Day, he was the youngest in his class and skipped a grade to graduate from Belmont High School at age 16. Then he finished a bachelor’s degree in biology in three years at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, graduating in 1944.

“He was talked into going to medical school by a professor at MIT,’’ said his daughter Elli Crocker Morse of Newton. “Basically, this one professor said, ‘With your gifts, you really should be doing something to help people.’ ’’

Dr. Crocker graduated from Harvard Medical School in 1948 and served in the Army Medical Corps. A captain, he was stationed in Germany, where he met Margarete Heel, who is known as Marga.

They married in 1953, the year he began working at Children’s Hospital Boston, where he stayed until retiring two years ago.

Dr. Crocker didn’t leave his intellectual curiosity behind when he left the office.

“He was just a man of incredibly broad interests and enthusiasms in life,’’ his daughter said.

The childhood interest in bugs led to a lifelong fascination with the natural world. On walks in the woods with family, Dr. Crocker listed the names of flowers and plants they passed. He also loved poetry, insisting that gatherings of physicians for meetings begin with the reading of a poem.

“He was the physician who prized a story in The New Yorker as much as a technical manuscript in a research journal,’’ Skotko said at the memorial service. “He was the doctor who wrote poems just as often as he wrote prescriptions.’’

Beginning when they left home for college, Dr. Crocker made a point of going out to dinner once a month with each of his three children to keep in touch.

They could ask him anything. Speaking during an 80th birthday celebration for Dr. Crocker, his daughter Elli recalled a conversation they had when she was a teenager. “How do you deal with your own mortality?’’ she asked. “His reply, ‘I think of myself as immortal.’ ’’

“Even though his whole life he steadfastly refused to acknowledge his own mortality, at the end he said to me, ‘You know, I’ve had a grand trip,’ ’’ she said in an interview. “He was so filled with gratitude for all the people who had accompanied him along the way.’’

In addition to his wife and daughter, Dr. Crocker leaves a son, Philip, of Irving, Texas; another daughter, Monica Doyon, of Oxford; and nine grandchildren.

“They may not all know it, but children with Down syndrome and other disabilities have more opportunities today because of Allen,’’ Skotko said at Sunday’s memorial service. “Parents fight fewer battles because Allen tore down walls.’’

Parents and children also benefited from one-on-one contact with a doctor who grinned with his patients, hugged mom and dad, and let everyone know things were going to be great.

“The kids were drawn to him because he was a different soul,’’ Lombardo said. “Families felt a lot of peace when they left. They would come in scared, and he allowed them to leave happy and looking forward to the future. That’s a huge gift.’’

Bryan Marquard can be reached at bmarquard@globe.com.