It’s the laughter that the staff of site group PMG Research say they will miss the most about Thomas W. Littlejohn III. His was a baritone laugh that could often be heard booming down the hallway at any of PMG’s 11 sites, usually accompanied by knee slapping and, if you were in the room with him, a jolly red face.
Jennifer Byrne, CEO of PMG who worked side by side with Dr. Littlejohn for the last 22 years, says what she will miss most are his nearly constant texts and emails; the long-time principal investigator and irrepressible innovator was forever coming up with ideas for improving how clinical research was conducted, and when the ideas came he was compelled to share them right away, Byrne said.
“There is no such thing as Monday through Friday with him. He sends texts all weekend, and I’ll get emails at 11 at night. It’s a continual flow. He’ll say, ‘I just had a thought...’” Byrne said, having not yet begun referring to him in the past tense.
Dr. Littlejohn—president and executive medical director of PMG, a P.I. on at least 3,000 studies and co-founder of Clinical Ink as well as the Greater Gift Initiative (GGI)—died in a plane crash March 30, leaving those in the clinical research space stunned. He was 62.
Dr. Littlejohn was en route from PMG’s Wilmington, Del., site back to its Winston-Salem, N.C., headquarters when the plane, carrying just he and the pilot, went down in High Point, N.C. Conditions were foggy and visibility was low, and the crash currently is under investigation by the National Transportation Safety Board. He was father to six children.
Melissa Holbrook, senior director of site management for CRO Quintiles, who worked closely with Dr. Littlejohn on many studies over the years, was shocked. “Quintiles is devastated by the loss,” she said. “Just about every Quintiles study was put in front of PMG; they have been our go-to organization. He was a key person in the field who we thought very, very highly of.”
“Tommy was not someone who sat by and waited for others to blaze the path; he saw what needed to be done in the site sector and took charge,” said Christine Pierre, CEO of site network RxTrials. “Many leaders have a take-charge persona, but Tommy, with his thick head of beautiful hair, pearly white smile—and let us never forget the array of cuff links—did it with grace, style, honesty and a deep understanding of the industry and the sites’ position within it. I will miss him deeply as a fellow industry leader and a friend.”
A Winston-Salem native and son of an obstetrician/gynecologist, Dr. Littlejohn started his own family practice in 1978. When a colleague who conducted research in gastroenterology wanted to branch out and accept studies in other therapeutic areas, he contacted Dr. Littlejohn to gauge his interest in becoming a P.I. His first study was a hypertension trial. That was 25 years ago.
From there, Dr. Littlejohn dabbled in research, taking on studies here and there while continuing to build Maplewood Family Practice Associates until it was bought by Novant Health in the mid-1990s. Dr. Littlejohn left and went into research full time, joining the then-nascent PMG Research. He quickly set about expanding its geographic footprint as well as identifying ways that operations at the site level could be conducted more smoothly and made more alluring to other physicians.
“PMG served as a forum for him to be able to be involved in research, but also as his learning ground for what could change,” said Ed Seguine, president of Clinical Ink, a company Dr. Littlejohn co-founded in 2006. Clinical Ink has developed data-capture applications for tablet PCs that P.I.s can use to create source documentation while visiting with study subjects. The aim: to remove many of the costly and time-consuming steps that now exist around source document creation and verification.
“It was really his desire to improve the process of clinical research, making it more attractive to doctors considering becoming investigators,” continued Seguine. “He knew there was that natural desire among that community to do research and to take part in finding new treatments, but he also knew there was a breaking point for physicians, and that if the process was burdensome it was viewed as impractical.”
Seguine, who joined Dr. Littlejohn and co-founder and CEO Doug Pierce in the venture in 2009, marveled at the two men’s
far-sightedness and vision in zeroing in on tablet PCs as a possible solution to sites’ documentation woes years before the iPad made tablet PCs a well-known commodity—and also at a time when industry tech purveyors such as Medidata and Phase Forward ruled the space.
Seguine and Pierce both laugh at how Clinical Ink was born. Explained Pierce, Dr. Littlejohn’s youngest daughter, Anna Claire, then in high school, was dating Pierce’s son, Taylor. One afternoon when Anna Claire was visiting, Pierce showed her what he was working on: developing tablet PC software for medical records. She mentioned this to her father, who immediately became enthralled with the idea of adapting that idea for trials. Dr. Littlejohn sent his daughter back to Taylor’s house.
“Anna Claire comes over and says her daddy wants me to give him a call right away,” remembered Pierce. “My heart sank. I’d never talked to him before, and I assumed my son had done something awful. I called and was ready to be blasted, but instead, this voice that I soon came to know and love came on the line with great excitement. He said, ‘Doug! We’ve got to meet! Anna Claire told me about the tablet!’ In an hour we had thought through and launched Clinical Ink with a hand shake.”
Dr. Littlejohn’s most recent innovation, which he co-founded with Byrne, was the Greater Gift Initiative, a nonprofit organization that facilitates the donation of vaccines in disadvantaged countries. Each time a person
participates in a trial at one of PMG’s sites, a vaccine is donated in his honor. GGI was just launched in January, retroactively donating 6,400 vaccines to children in India, Pakistan, Afghanistan and Nigeria for all PMG trial participants in 2010. At the time of his death, Dr. Littlejohn was reaching out to sponsors, CROs and other sites to join the effort for their trial subjects. Those efforts will continue, said Byrne.
Already, donations are pouring in to GGI. In the week following his death, donations totaled enough to fund about 1,000 vaccines, said Byrne, adding, “He’s still giving back, isn’t he?”
Also pouring in are messages letting PMG staff know how much Dr. Littlejohn touched people with his concerned and helpful manner. “In every relationship, he was the caring physician,” said Lisa Hindman, director of operations for PMG’s western region. “If he found out a monitor’s sister was in the hospital, he’d investigate to make sure her care was appropriate. If you had a cough, he was going to ask you about it. He didn’t tell us about all of those interactions, but those are the notes we’re getting now. Our inboxes are flooded from the industry.”
While details aren’t yet clear, Byrne, Pierce and Seguine say all of Dr. Littlejohn’s ventures will continue. Though his larger-than-life presence is gone, his enthusiasm for research and innovation and his desire to always do the right thing lives on, said Byrne.
“That’s a thread that runs through all of us. It’s within us,” she added. “He bred creativity into us. It’s deep and it’s ingrained. His legacy is that we all carry that with us now.”