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Dr. N. Thorne Griscom, radiologist and singer with perfect pitch on stage and in the lab, dies at 88

Thorne Griscom and his daughter, Nell Griscom, in Mexico in 1977.
Thorne Griscom and his daughter, Nell Griscom, in Mexico in 1977.Handout

As a singer since his days growing up on an apple and peach farm, Thorne Griscom had perfect pitch — that rare ability to hear a note and immediately know if it’s a B-flat or a D or an F.

Colleagues thought Dr. Griscom had the medical equivalent of absolute pitch, too — an unfailing sense of what was amiss when he studied X-rays as a radiologist at Boston Children’s Hospital.

Though in a memoir he conceded that, as a young resident, he had considered his decision to switch specialties from pediatrics to radiology to be an “admission of failure,” he went on to become a pioneering practitioner and an honored researcher.


Dr. Griscom, who wrote a history of pediatric radiology and trained generations of physicians, died Sept. 27 in Lexington. He was 88 and had been diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease several years ago.

Boston Children’s Hospital established the N. Thorne Griscom endowed chair in radiology in 2014. He had retired after practicing for 49 years, during which he developed a technique to keep radiologists inquisitive.

In a 2002 article for the journal Radiology, he wrote about that approach, which he had taught his students: Review images before reading a patient’s medical history, because a preliminary diagnosis sometimes encourages physicians to look for results that merely confirm earlier findings.

“Those of us fortunate enough to interpret images with Dr. Griscom know he practiced this method for every image he reviewed, often culminating in astonishing and miraculous diagnoses,” his colleagues Dr. George A. Taylor, Dr. Carlo Buonomo, and Dr. Michael J. Callahan wrote in a tribute.

As Dr. Griscom wrote in his journal article, this approach “keeps the radiologist engaged in the process — it converts it into an intellectual game, turning a chore into fun — and reminds him or her to consider rarities.”


Dr. Griscom’s “gifts as a diagnostician and teacher were immediately obvious,” Taylor, Buonomo, and Callahan wrote. They added, though, that “for us, however, he was so much more; he was our moral compass.”

As a teacher and diagnostician, no matter how senior he was as his career progressed, Dr. Griscom welcomed the opinions of those he worked with and those he mentored. And he still knew perfection might remain out of range, even when everyone’s judgments formed a sort of diagnostic harmony.

In his memoir, he said he had developed aphorisms to use as teaching tools. Among them: “When dealing with images, four eyes are better than two, and six are better than four.” And this, too: “If all agree on a diagnosis, does that make it true? No, but it increases the odds.”

Nathan Thorne Griscom was born in Philadelphia on June 21, 1931, and grew up in Moorestown, N.J., as part of a Quaker family that traced its presence in the region to an ancestor’s arrival from England in 1680.

His parents, David Davis Griscom and Helen Thorne, ran Cropwell — a family farm that mostly grew apples and peaches, along with a few other crops in smaller supply.

The middle of three brothers, Dr. Griscom was named after Dr. Nathan Thorne, his maternal grandfather, who was a physician.

“Sometimes naming does turn out to be destiny,” Dr. Griscom wrote in his memoir, which he called “Reminiscences.”


“It was always assumed that I would become a doctor,” he added later, “but it was seldom stated and never discussed, at least not with me.”

As a boy he worked on the farm. Along with the fruit they sold, the Griscoms grew much of the food they ate. “At first our pay was 25 cents an hour when we worked by the hour,” Dr. Griscom wrote. “We got 2 ½ cents, later more, for each basket of potatoes we picked up when paid by piece-work.”

In 1948, he graduated first in his class at Haddonfield High School, and won one of the state’s two Pepsi-Cola scholarships, which paid his full college tuition. He headed to Wesleyan University, from which he graduated with a bachelor’s degree in chemistry.

Dr. Griscom sang in his high school glee club and the All-State Chorus, and with various college music groups as well. Turning down an acceptance from Harvard, he went to medical school at the University of Rochester, where during his third year he met Joanna Starr.

They were both part of the Rochester Oratorio Society. She worked in the dean’s office at the medical school and “seized the opportunity to examine my records,” he wrote. “I passed inspection.”

They married the day after Christmas in 1955, during his fourth year in medical school.

The Griscoms, who lived in Lexington for many years, went on to sing in Boston with the Chorus pro Musica and the Cantata Singers — she was a soprano, he was a tenor. Their performances included a memorable night at Symphony Hall with the Boston Symphony Orchestra in the early 1960s.


Mrs. Griscom, who also had been a producer of the WGBH music program “Chamberworks,” died in 2010.

After a pediatrics internship and residency at Massachusetts General Hospital, Dr. Griscom spent two years as an Army physician and moved into radiology. Returning to Boston, he was a radiology resident at MGH before joining the pediatric radiology department at Children’s Hospital.

During his career, Dr. Griscom “was an early practitioner in fetal imaging,” his colleagues wrote in their tribute, adding that his research in other areas “made major academic contributions” as well. He formerly was president of the Society for Pediatric Radiology, which named its excellence in teaching award after him. In 1997, the organization awarded him its Gold Medal for his career contributions.

And although as a college graduate he had turned down studying at Harvard Medical School, he was a longtime professor of radiology there.

With characteristic honesty, Dr. Griscom wrote in his memoir that he “had both diagnostic triumphs and diagnostic stumbles.”

“My father is both the kindest and the most honest man I’ve ever met,” said his daughter, Dr. Nell Griscom, a veterinarian who lives in Los Gatos, Calif. “I am sure that he never lied. It just never would have occurred to him.”

Her father, she added, tended to demand more of himself than of others.

“He always saw the best in other people,” she said. “His extraordinary thing was that he was a perfectionist for himself, but he was so kind to other people. He was very forgiving of what their faults were.”


In addition to his daughter, Dr. Griscom leaves two sons, Dan of Melrose and Matt of Seattle; and seven grandchildren.

A memorial service will be held at noon Jan. 11 in First Parish Church in Lexington.

“He was always so extraordinarily supportive of us,” Nell said of her father’s approach to being a parent and a grandparent. “No matter what we did, he acted like we were the best thing since sliced bread.”

Dr. Griscom was modest, though, about his own abilities, including having perfect pitch — a handy talent for starting songs when he sang with a cappella groups.

In a self-deprecating aside, he wrote in his memoir that “really knowledgeable musicians realize it is mostly just an interesting parlor trick.”

Bryan Marquard can be reached at bryan.marquard@globe.com.