JOHNSTOWN - From a young age, Jackson W. Riddle had a keen interest in science. As a high school student in the 1930s, he read up on microscopes and wrote a term paper about the study of microorganisms.
"I worked with the lowest forms of life a great deal," he jokes. But that early study led Riddle to a long and illustrious career in medical research and administration - a career that spanned 38 years and influenced health care in New York state and throughout the world.
Now 95 years old and long retired, Dr. Riddle recently moved to Johnstown to be near his daughter and son-in-law, Julie and Dan Ehle, and granddaughters Kate Ehle and Rebecca Beers. Earlier this week, in his tidy apartment at Trackside Homes, he sat down for an interview with The Leader-Herald and reflected on his life as a doctor, teacher, researcher, administrator, family man and world traveler.
Dr. Jackson Riddle poses for a portrait Wednesday afternoon on the balcony of his apartment at Trackside Homes in Johnstown. (The Leader-Herald/Bill Ackerbauer)
Man of science
Born in Maryland, Dr. Riddle has lived in many parts of the country. Earning his M.D. and several other advanced degrees, he taught medicine at Ohio State University, where he eventually became the associate vice president and dean of faculty.
"I spent 26 years teaching in the medical school, and I've taught literally thousands of doctors and dentists," he said. "I turned out a fairly sizable impact on health personnel."
But training young doctors was just one chapter of his professional life. Leaving the academic world in the late 1960s, Riddle went into pharmaceutical research. As vice president for medical affairs with Eaton Laboratories in Norwich, Chenango County, he worked with the team of scientists that developed a version of the chemical L-Dopa as the first viable treatment for Parkinson's disease.
"L-Dopamine is still a valid prescription and is used," he said. "At that time, it was the first one approved. It was the first drug that ever worked for Parkinson's ... I'm still proud of that accomplishment."
A few years later, he and his wife, Helen, and their children moved to Albany, where he served as executive director of the New York State Board of Medicine, overseeing 13 medical schools and the licensing of physicians in the state.
Dr. Riddle was a key figure in setting New York's rules regulating the practice of acupuncture, a form of Chinese traditional medicine in which sharp needles are applied to specific points on the body. Interest in acupuncture rose in the United States in 1971, when a journalist accompanying Secretary of State Henry Kissinger was treated with the technique after undergoing emergency surgery in China. Acupuncture practicioners - many of them dubious - sprang up in New York City and elsewhere.
"I became interested in it because [at the time] it was an illegal practice of medicine, by people who were not adequately trained, so I asked the board, 'Don't you think it's time we do something about this? Get it under control?' Which we did."
Riddle and his colleagues drew up the rules that became law, limiting the practice of acupuncture to trained and licensed experts. The state law, he said, "became a standard for this country; other states followed New York."
Under his direction, the board developed New York's guidelines for the training and certification of physician's assistants, which served as the model for similar programs in other states. The establishment of the PA credential, he said, helped fill a gap in health care in rural parts of upstate New York that had difficulty attracting enough physicians.
In addition to working in Albany, Dr. Riddle had an office at the World Trade Center in Manhattan, and his influence on medicine extended to other parts of the world. For example, he was involved in the establishment of a program at the Sackler School of Medicine at Tel Aviv University in Israel.
"I did a lot of traveling," he said. "In Europe, the Caribbean and Mexico, assessing the medical education in those institutions," to determine if their graduates were suitable for residency in New York hospitals and licensure in the state.
"With all that experience in assessing programs in medical education, the AMA came for me one day and said, 'We'd like for you to come out to Chicago and help with the same sort of activities in working with the medical schools here,'" he said.
As director of the American Medical Association's Division of Educational Policy and Development, he also oversaw the development of the country's first nurse practitioner programs.
After his retirement in 1986, he and his wife lived for many years in New Bern, N.C., near their daughter Katherine Blanchard.
"I've been retired almost as long as I worked," Dr. Riddle said.
Helen Riddle, who had been a concert violinist until an injury cut her career short around 1970, battled Alzheimer's disease for the last decade of her life. She died last year at the age of 94.
"We had done a lot of traveling," he said, recalling trips up the Nile and down the Yangtze and other adventures.
"You can't get enough of Paris," he said. "You can't get enough of Rome, London ... "
After his wife's death, he decided a change of scenery was in order, and settling into new digs at Trackside fit the bill. He said he was glad to get an apartment on the second floor of his building - using the stairs is good exercise. He goes for walks daily, often on the grounds at nearby Johnson Hall State Historic Site, and he's an active member of St. John's Episcopal Church.
He also practices the Chinese exercise regime Tai Chi for a half-hour or more every morning and every evening. He said doesn't have arthritis or other ailments that slow down many people his age.
"I still am vigorous and in good shape," he said. "I take care of myself."
Last month, he was feeling so spry that a trip to Europe was in order.
"I decided I wanted to take a river cruise down the Danube to the Black Sea," he said. "I had never been to Eastern Europe. So, I booked my passage, and I told my kids, 'This is what I'm going to do.' The jaws hit the floor: 'Dad, you're 95!'"
Julie Ehle said she and her siblings were thrilled that he wanted to take the trip.
"But we were a little nervous about his doing it alone," she said, so her brother Paul Riddle from Atlanta went along on the journey.
"We had a marvelous time," he said, noting he wasn't afraid to climb the set of 170 steps leading up to the Palace of the Parliament in Bucharest, Romania. "I may be a little slower than some, but I'll get there."
Dr. Riddle is an avid reader and enjoys keeping in touch with his four children and seven grandchildren via email and instant messaging. He recently acquired an iPad and was learning to use it this week.
Though he spent years in balmy North Carolina, Dr. Riddle says he has no qualms about enduring another winter in upstate New York.
"If it gets impassable, I'm just going to hunker down with my Kindle and my iPad," he said.
Ehle said she and her family love having her father living nearby.
"He has led a very healthy, happy, interesting, accomplished and blessed life and continues to be one very busy, active and vibrant man," she said. "I swear he's going to live to 105."
"I'm not sure about that," Dr. Riddle said. "But I'll try. I've had a wonderful life."
Features Editor Bill Ackerbauer can be reached by email at email@example.com.