Issue: October 2011
October 01, 2011
4 min read

Henry H. Turner, MD: The man behind Turner’s syndrome

Issue: October 2011
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Henry H. Turner, MD, a pioneer endocrinologist who lived from 1892 to 1970, is credited with publishing the first manuscript in 1938 that described the syndrome that bears his name.

Turner spent his life studying endocrinology, and when he retired in 1969, he had more than 30 publications on topics such as disorders of the anterior pituitary, androgen effects on testicular descent and ovarian failure.

Of all his papers and reviews, “A Syndrome of Infantilism, Congenital Webbed Neck and Cubitus Valgus,” published in the journal Endocrinology, is his most famous. Turner first presented his observations in 1938 at the annual meeting of the Association for the Study of Internal Secretions. He described seven patients— six adolescents and one adult — who presented with the triad, noting at the time that “[these conditions] occurring in the same individual is unusual and, to my knowledge, has not been previously reported.”

Education and family life

Turner was born on Aug. 28, 1892, in Harrisburg, Ill., to John William Turner and Alice Rose Turner. He was an only child. He spent his childhood in Harrisburg, where he graduated high school in 1912. From there, Turner attended St. Louis University in Missouri, where he earned his premedical and undergraduate degrees in 1918. He continued his education, completing a postgraduate externship at St. John’s Hospital, also in St. Louis, in 1918. The next year, he entered the School of Medicine of St. Louis University, where he spent 2 years before transferring to the University of Louisville and receiving his MD degree in 1921. Then, Turner completed an internship as the Louisville City Hospital as the house officer in medicine from 1921 to 1922.

On June 28, 1923, Turner married Frances Bulkley, and they had two children, Marian Frances Turner and Alice Ann Turner. While starting a family, Turner was appointed chief medical resident at Louisville City Hospital from 1922 to 1924.

New sights, new practice

In 1924, the Turner family relocated to Oklahoma City. There, Turner started his own practice and became affiliated with the University of Oklahoma College of Medicine, as well as its hospitals. This affiliation made 1924 a busy year for Turner. He was appointed instructor in medicine at the university and later also appointed acting medical superintendent and consulting endocrinologist of the university hospital. As acting medical superintendent, Turner supervised a group of five to six interns and several medical students. As consulting endocrinologist, he observed patients with endocrine disorders, which helped in his discovery of Turner’s syndrome.

By 1928, Turner was promoted to assistant professor of medicine at the University of Oklahoma College of Medicine and remained in that position until 1939. During the 1930s, Turner traveled to the University of Vienna for special training in neurology and endocrinology. “Dr. Turner was clearly ahead of his time in considering the concept of ‘neuro-endocrinology,’” G. Bradley Schaefer, MD, and Harris D. Riley Jr., MD, wrote in “A Tribute to Henry H. Turner, MD (1892-1970): A Pioneer Endocrinologist” in a 2004 issue of the Endocrinologist. After, he studied at the Hospital for Paralyzed and Epileptics at Queens Square, London.

It was not until 1947 that Turner was appointed associate dean of the faculty of the University of Oklahoma College of Medicine. He maintained that position until 1949, when he was appointed clinical professor of medicine at the university. He held that position until 1966, when he was appointed clinical professor emeritus of medicine, which he maintained until the end of his life.

Known to his colleagues as a heavy smoker of cigarettes, Turner developed pulmonary symptoms and eventually developed carcinoma of the lung. He died on Aug. 4, 1970, of lung cancer complications.

Unique discovery

Today, it is estimated that Turner’s syndrome affects one in 1,500 to 2,000 female live births. Average adult height in untreated girls with Turner’s syndrome is 4 feet, 8 inches, yet with early diagnosis and initiation of growth hormone therapy, normal or near-normal adult stature can be achieved. Unfortunately, most girls with Turner’s syndrome go unrecognized until after 10 years of age, according to information from The Endocrine Society.

Turner described his initial observations of Turner’s syndrome in an interview with R. Palmer Howard, MD, as cited from the archives of the Oklahoma University Health Science Center Library. Turner said he noticed a definite pattern of nonmaturing girls who were short in stature and had short necks, a low hair line and increased carrying angle at the elbow. Turner continued to follow the initial seven patients, later discovering that they responded to estrogen therapy, which helped them develop breasts, increase the size of the uterus and “feminize them.”

A pioneer in endocrinology

According to the paper published in the Endocrinologist, “His involvement with the early stages of endocrinology was truly pioneering, and his training and collaborations are filled with the names of the true pioneers in the field.” Turner cited mentors such as William Engelbach, MD, one of the first presidents of The Endocrine Society, and John Walker Moore, MD, a leader in the field of metabolic disorders.

Besides his work in the hospital and university, Turner was a leading member of many societies, including The Endocrine Society of America, American Goiter Association, Central Society for Clinical Research, National Society of Nuclear Medicine and the Endocrine Societies of Colombia, Haiti and Mexico. During his lifetime, he also received various honors such as Professor Extraordinaire at the National University of Mexico in 1944; was made a member of the National College of Surgeons of Brazil in 1956; was awarded the Schering Scholar in Endocrinology in 1959; and received the Certificate of Merit of The Endocrine Society and Seale Harris medal of the Southern Medical Association. – by Casey Murphy

For more information:

  • Howard RP. Non-referenced file. From the archives of the Oklahoma University Health Science Center Library, Oklahoma City.
  • Schaefer GB. Endocrinologist. 2004;14:179-184.
  • Turner HH. Endocrinology. 1938;23:566-574.
  • Turner Syndrome Society of the United States. What is Turner syndrome? Available at: