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In memoriam: Dr. Jeffrey L. Conklin

It is with a heavy heart that we share the passing of this mentor, friend and GI pioneer.
In Memoriam: Dr. Jeffrey L. Conklin
In Memoriam: Dr. Jeffrey L. Conklin

This article first appeared in UCLA Health.

It is with heavy hearts that we announce the passing of our colleague, friend, and mentor, Dr. Jeffrey L. Conklin. We know this news is devastating personally and professionally to so many of us. It is no exaggeration to say Dr. Conklin was a legend in esophageal diseases and a pioneer in testing gastrointestinal motor function. Even more importantly, he was beloved and known for his kindness, humility, warmth, generosity, compassion and the rare talent for bringing people together so that the whole was greater than the sum of its parts.

Dr. Conklin completed his undergraduate work at the University of Iowa with a bachelor of science degree in journalism. He obtained his MD degree at the University of Iowa where he was elected to the Alpha Omega Alpha Honor Medical Society. He completed internal medicine and gastroenterology training at the University of Iowa. During his training he coauthored seminal papers exploring the physiological mechanisms controlling esophageal and colonic motor function. He then went to the University of Massachusetts Medical School where he completed a postdoctoral fellowship and became an instructor in the Department of Physiology and Biophysics. While at the University of Massachusetts, he studied physiological and pharmacological control of gastrointestinal smooth muscle. Dr. Conklin then returned to the Division of Gastroenterology and Hepatology at the University of Iowa where he became professor of medicine. After 15 years at the University of Iowa, he joined the faculty of the Division of Gastroenterology and Hepatology at the Mayo Clinic, Rochester. During his tenure at the Mayo Clinic, he became director of the esophageal function lab and continued his study of esophageal motor function. He then moved to Los Angeles to become director of the Esophageal Center of Excellence at Cedars Sinai-Medical Center. Dr. Conklin was recruited to UCLA in 2013 and went on to help launch and direct the Robert G. Kardashian Center for Esophageal Health and the GI Motility Program. He was a member of the American Gastroenterological Association, American Neurogastroenterology and Motility Society and was a fellow of the American College of Gastroenterology. He was selected to the Best Doctors in America list since 2012.

Dr. Conklin was a giant in the initial discovery phase of how the esophagus works. He undertook ground-breaking studies demonstrating nitric oxide is the neurotransmitter that controls relaxation of the lower esophageal sphincter and peristalsis in the smooth muscle esophagus. That work explored the biophysical and biochemical mechanisms by which nitric oxide exerts its effects. His studies in humans were among the first to support the hypothesis that achalasia results from a loss of esophageal neurons that produce nitric oxide. He was also among the first investigators to provide evidence that interstitial cells of Cajal are pacemaker cells that control colonic motor function. While at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles, he and his colleagues were among the first to develop and adopt the technology of high-resolution manometry. He coauthored the first and most widely used book describing the clinical use of this technology. Despite his great success and stature in the field, and the impact he had helping countless patients, his greatest professional joy seemed to come from teaching and training the next generation of physicians.

Dr. Conklin enthusiastically instructed fellows, colleagues and investigators and was known as “the guy to learn gastrointestinal motor function from,” winning multiple teaching awards. His knowledge base was intimidating but he presented it in a way that was relatable and intelligible. Former students comment that his comparison of reading motility tracings to mountain ranges is still engrained and used when interpreting gastrointestinal motility testing. This analogy came from his early hiking trips using maps to navigate trails (prior to GPS). Always seeking to inspire, he recently joined Twitter and started #ManoMondays, a peer-to-peer educational series devoted to all things manometry. He described Twitter as a young physician’s platform, but of course he excelled. He successfully created a center of excellence at UCLA that is now poised to take the next step thanks to his efforts.

More than just a clinician, he was passionate about art, culture, gardening and all things creative.  When away at DDW, he would connect with longtime friends and colleagues during the day, but at night he would hang out with fellows until the early morning hours. Above all, Dr. Conklin was a family man, and he will be remembered as one who cherished and doted on his wife and two sons.

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