Accomplished nephrologist and MU professor, Karl Nolph loved music

Wednesday, June 18, 2014 | 5:48 p.m. CDT; updated 8:47 p.m. CDT, Thursday, June 19, 2014

COLUMBIA — Dr. Karl Nolph sang to his wife, Georgia Nolph, every morning when they got up.

He sang to her on long drives, when they were getting ready to go out and just before bed. He was the only person that ever sang to her, she said.

These small but significant interactions wove music into the daily life of the accomplished doctor and nephrologist, who is known in the medical community as a pioneer in the field of dialysis. At work, Dr. Nolph was a world-renowned researcher of kidney disease and the development of continuous ambulatory peritoneal dialysis. At home, he was a husband, father and musician.

Karl David Nolph of Columbia died Monday, June 16, 2014, at his home. He was 77.

Dr. Nolph was born on Feb. 6, 1937, in Brookville, Pa., to Harry and Mary (Ruddock) Nolph. He married Georgia Bower on July 26, 1961, in Appleton, Minn.

They met through mutual friends at a mixer in Philadelphia while they were in medical school. He was a second-year student at the University of Pennsylvania, and she was in her first year at Women's Medical College of Pennsylvania.

His roommate had convinced him to go to the mixer to take a break from studying, Georgia Nolph said.

"At that time, someone would play the piano and everybody would dance and sing along," she said. "I was playing the piano. One of his friends at the fraternity said, 'You’ve got to meet the piano player. She’s from a town smaller than your hometown.' And so we met."

They were married the next July. For their remaining time in school, they'd come home from class, eat dinner, and then sit around their big kitchen table studying for the next three or four hours.

Dr. Nolph graduated from the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine in 1963. He served two years in the U.S. Army Medical Corps during the Vietnam War from 1967 to 1969. He worked at Walter Reed Army Institute of Research and General Hospital where he saw patients and did basic research, Georgia Nolph said. Even early on, his work had a lasting impact on those he served.

At the time, soldiers were given salt tablets to keep their strength up on long hikes while carrying 40-pound bags of equipment, Georiga Nolph said. Dr. Nolph and another doctor realized the tablets were doing more harm than good because the soldiers were dehydrated.

"So they got them to change some of the practices and said, 'Hey, don’t give them so much salt, and give them lots of water,'" Georgia Nolph said. "And since then, they have followed those guidelines."

Dr. Nolph then joined the MU School of Medicine's Division of Nephrology and Hypertension in 1969, the year it was established. Ramesh Khanna, who became the director of the division after Dr. Nolph retired in 1999, worked alongside him for 32 years.

Dr. Nolph was named chief of the division in 1974, and he held that position for 25 years. He has received numerous accolades nationally and internationally, including multiple lifetime achievement and research awards. He has been recognized by MU, the University of Pennsylvania, Franklin and Marshall College and the Royal College of Physicians Surgeons of Glasgow, Scotland. Dr. Nolph was a founding member and president of the International Society for Peritoneal Dialysis. Dr. Nolph also served as the president of the American Society for Artificial Internal Organs.

"He had so many accomplishments and he won so many awards. He’s a giant in the field of nephrology," Khanna said. "As a human being, he was so easily accessible. Anybody — a medical student, a colleague — could walk up to him and you would never feel that he was such a world renowned scientist. He had no big ego about himself. He was a very simple, down-to-earth type of person. Those were his attributes that I always admired."

Nolph's accomplishments were, in part, the result of his efficient working style. Khanna said he would always prepare for conferences and presentations long in advance, and he didn't hold anything off until the last minute.

His daughter, Erika Ringdahl, said he would write her a letter every Sunday while she was in college and medical school. He often wrote to her, "Strive to achieve peak efficiency per unit time."

"We always joked about that," she said.

Outside of work, Dr. Nolph played in multiple bands — marching, concert and swing — and he attended church at Missouri United Methodist Church, where he sang in the church choir.

"He also believed that family was very, very important," Georgia Nolph said. "When he was at work, he worked very hard, but he didn’t do a lot of coffee breaks or talking in the hall. He just worked, and unless he had sick patients, he was out at 5 p.m. so he could come home and be with his family."

Family time included reading, hiking and taking excursions around Missouri. At their first house, they had two hammocks positioned in a right angle in the yard. When they moved, they had four hammocks positioned in a square so the whole family could be together.

"We loved to swing in the hammock," Georgia Nolph said. "We'd solve the world’s problems from our point of view. Hammock time was very important."

Music was also a family affair. Dr. Nolph and his daughter played trumpet, while his son, Kristopher, played drums. Georgia Nolph played the piano.

"We played trumpet-piano duets at home," Georgia Nolph said. "Sometimes our daughter would play with us. We’d have all four of us playing music."

Their tastes in music varied across popular music of the '40s and '50s, church hymns and classical selections. Bach was a favorite.

Post-retirement, Dr. Nolph and his family spent 15 summers in Nova Scotia.

"When we retired, we both thought we needed to go away where people couldn’t call," Georgia Nolph said.

They picked Nova Scotia through mutual friends and found a place to rent. Their stays went from one month their first year up to 4 1/2 months the last couple years.

"They were integrated into the community," Ringdahl said. "It seemed like every night they had a rehearsal or a performance, and they really enjoyed that."

They had their 50th anniversary celebration there in 2011.

"It was just pure escape and a change of style," Georgia Nolph said. "So that was like a second home to us. We became active in the church up there and in the lighthouse society, plus the band. We felt very much at home up there."

Dr. Nolph is survived by his wife, Georgia Nolph; his daughter, Erika Ringdahl, and her husband, Bruce, of Columbia; his son, Kristopher Nolph, and his wife, Michelle (Cope), of Jefferson City; and five grandchildren, Shelby Ringdahl, Sydney Ringdahl and Karson Ringdahl, all of Columbia, and Madison Nolph and Ian Nolph, both of Jefferson City. His sister, Sue Messamore, died earlier.

Services will be conducted by the Rev. Amy Gearhart and held at 2 p.m. Friday at Missouri United Methodist Church, 204 S. Ninth St. Visitation will follow at the same location.

Memorial contributions can be given in lieu of flowers to Missouri United Methodist Church, 204 S. Ninth St., Columbia, MO 65201, or The University of Missouri School of Medicine, Division of Nephrology, 1 Hospital Drive, University of Missouri, Columbia, MO 65212.

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