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Alumni Spotlight | Thomas J. Crowley, M.D.

Though he stays in bounds now, Thomas Crowley, M.D., still enjoys mountain skiing. (Photo: Sharp Shoooter Imaging)

From avalanche safety to human behavior, this problem-solver finds ways to make things work better

Thomas J. Crowley, ’62 M.D., discovered the joys of mountain skiing through the University of Minnesota Ski Club. The Minneapolis native’s first trip west took him to Aspen for some traditional downhill skiing. But over time he discovered his true passion was for the backcountry. “Colorado has a system of huts — beautiful log cabins, built right along the timberline,” says Crowley. “You can ski or snowshoe from hut to hut through the most beautiful country imaginable — without having to worry about sleeping outdoors.”

He did worry, however, about the very real and ever-present danger of avalanches: “I didn’t want to die by suffocation under snow.” And so, after puzzling over the risk for a couple of years, on a hot August night the idea came to him for a simple device that could improve the chances of surviving an avalanche. After a fair bit of tinkering, Crowley invented and patented the AvaLung.

The device enables a victim to breathe in air from the snow through a mouthpiece and discharge carbon dioxide-laden breath through a tube that carries it away from the face and behind the body. (Most avalanche fatalities result from suffocation due to constantly re-breathing the same small volume of air.) The device increases the time one can survive while buried by up to 45 to 60 minutes.

Crowley’s invention, the AvaLung, enables an avalanche victim to breathe in air from the snow through a mouthpiece and discharge carbon dioxide-laden breath
through a tube that carries it away from the face. The device increases the time
one can survive while buried by up to 60 minutes.

Crowley licensed the AvaLung to Black Diamond, a mountaineering equipment company, which refined the design and brought it to market. In 2002 Crowley’s device became a documented lifesaver, enabling a backcountry skier who got caught in an avalanche to survive until rescuers could dig him out.

No formula to explain human behavior

That same problem-solving bent had drawn Crowley to study the human mind.

After he enrolled at the University of Minnesota in 1955, Crowley studied physics for a year before switching to medicine. (“I realized all physicists want to reduce the entire universe to a few formulas,” he recalls. “I didn’t like that idea.”) Initially, he planned to become a general practitioner somewhere in small-town Minnesota. But an encounter with a young man suffering from schizophrenia changed his career path.

“During my first clinical rotation — which was in psychiatry — I interviewed a patient [while he was] in the midst of a severe psychotic episode,” Crowley says. “He was about my age. During the interview, he was calm. His manner was very reasoned, thoughtful. And he was clearly convinced that a number of really crazy and paranoid ideas of his were completely accurate.

“To this day, it remains one of the most amazing experiences of my life,” Crowley continues. “He was utterly unable to grasp the completely unreasonable nature of his thinking.”

Eager to better understand what drives human behavior, Crowley decided on a career in psychiatry. After earning his M.D., he performed an internship in New Orleans, returning to the University of Minnesota in 1963 to complete his psychiatry residency. He then served in the U.S. Air Force before joining the University of Colorado School of Medicine faculty in 1968, eventually founding and directing his department’s Division of Substance Dependence.

Beyond the tabula rasa

Crowley’s research and teaching career at the University of Colorado helped reshape our modern-day understanding of human behavior.

“When I was a student, psychiatry still viewed the human mind as a blank slate,” Crowley recalls.

Under this so-called “tabula rasa” model of human behavior, most treatment and research methods worked from the assumption that psychiatric problems were primarily the result of one’s life experiences.

“We now know, of course, that biology and genetics are huge contributors to basic human behavior,” Crowley says, “especially to many of the very serious behavioral disorders that psychiatrists address.”

Early in his career, Crowley studied a broad spectrum of topics, ranging from monkeys’ circadian rhythms and sleep patterns to the effect of nicotine on humans. Over time, however, he zeroed in on addiction, substance abuse, and adolescent conduct disorders.

“I helped prove that early-onset substance and conduct problems in adolescents are due in part to their genes,” he says. “My brain imaging research showed that these kids’ brains have abnormal structure — and that their brains function abnormally as they consider doing risky behaviors. These kids have a brain disorder.”

Crowley also helped guide federal policy on substance use research by serving as an adviser to both the National Institute on Drug Abuse and the National Institute on Alcoholism and Alcohol Abuse. But his widest impact may be yet to come, through the work of his students.

“I taught uncounted medical students, residents, counselors, and others to respectfully treat persons with substance use disorders — showing these trainees the strong scientific evidence that these are medical disorders,” Crowley says.

Now 76, Crowley still teaches some — as professor emeritus — and he still has an active research program. Although Crowley (who still loves skiing powder and bumps) sticks to developed resorts these days, he feels good about making backcountry skiing a little safer for others. That doesn’t compare, however, with the satisfaction he feels about the work he’s done as a teacher and researcher.

“There’s been a sea change in the understanding of psychiatric disorders during my lifetime,” says Crowley. “And I’m proud to say that I’ve been one of the people in the boat pulling on the oars.”

By Chuck Benda, a freelance writer from Hastings, Minnesota

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