LOS ANGELES, March 6 (UPI) -- Dr. Thomas Rea, a dermatologist and a pioneer of the treatment of leprosy, died at the age of 86 in his home in California's San Gabriel Mountains.
The news was only recently confirmed by Rea's son Steven and reported by the Los Angeles Times.
That the once stigmatized and debilitating Hansen's disease -- or leprosy -- is now treatable, is in large part thanks to Rea's research.
Doctors had long suspected a link between the immune system and the painful lesions associated with leprosy, but Rea was the to first prove it. His discoveries paved the way for treatments that rendered the disease non-contagious and allowed leprosy patients -- once shamed into hiding -- to live normal, pain-free lives.
"It was huge," Dr. David Peng, head of the dermatology department at the University of Southern California's Keck School of Medicine, told the Times.
Rea was born in 1929 in Three Rivers, Mich. He earned his undergraduate degree from Oberlin College before attending medical school at the University of Michigan. After completing his residency at University Hospital in Ann Arbor, Rea worked for Medical Corps of the U.S. Army in Korea.
It was while serving in New York University's dermatology department that Rea first began treating leprosy patients.
In 1970, Rea moved to Los Angeles. From 1981 to 1996, Rea worked at the L.A. County-USC Medical Center. In the 1990s, Rea lobbied the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to take the leprosy-management drug thalidomine off its banned list, arguing that it could be used safely if closely and carefully managed.
Rea's death came at the end of a long battle with blood cancer.