American Surgical Association Transactions

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1946 – 2015


Alexander (Alec) Whitehill Clowes, Professor of Surgery at the University of Washington and renowned researcher in vascular biology, died of a brain glioblastoma on July 7, 2015, at the age of 68.

Alec was born into a family with an enormous legacy of medical research. His forbearer, Sir William Clowes, physician to the Admiral of the British Fleet as it fought the Spanish Armada, published in 1588 one of the earliest textbooks on surgery in the English language. Alec's grandfather was George Henry Alexander Clowes, PhD, the scientist and mastermind behind the purification of insulin for clinical use, and his father, George Henry Alexander Clowes, Jr., was an academic surgeon and researcher at Case Western Reserve and Harvard.

It therefore is no surprise that Alec's favorite memories were of science classes in high school (Phillips Exeter Academy, 1964) and college (Harvard College, 1968) followed by his own laboratory experience in Sheffield, England, during medical school (Harvard Medical School, 1972). Despite his original intention to restrict his career to research, Alec discovered profound enjoyment in patient care. He switched to concentrate on a career in academic surgery. He obtained his general surgery training at Case Western Reserve in Cleveland, Ohio, between 1972 and 1979, and advanced training in vascular surgery with Dr. John A. Mannick at the Peter Bent Brigham Hospital in Boston (1979-1980). His thoughts were never far from research and he interrupted his general surgery residency to work in the laboratory of Dr. Morris Karnovsky at Harvard Medical School. It was during this period (1974-1977) that Alec developed his life-long interest in vascular biology and arterial remodeling after injury.

In 1980 at the conclusion of his training, Alec departed his native New England for Seattle, joined the faculty of the Department of Surgery at the University of Washington School of Medicine, and never looked back. He rose through the academic ranks to Professor of Surgery in 1990, Acting Chairman of the Department of Surgery in 1992-3, and Chief of the Division of Vascular Surgery from 1995 to 2007. No offers from other institutions could lure him away. He developed an intense loyalty to the University of Washington where he found a cooperative environment that nurtured innovation, research, and outstanding patient care.

Throughout his years at the UW, Alec's focus remained on his research, the training of physicians for careers in academic vascular surgery, and the care of patients with vascular diseases. Along the way, he assumed leadership responsibilities in numerous national and international professional organizations. The National Institutes of Health funded his research for a third of a century, an astonishing record. His efforts engendered many honors and awards including the American Surgical Flance-Karl award which he received in 2005. Most recently Alec received a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Society for Vascular Surgery. His collected scientific publications fill over six volumes. Despite the acclaim of his peers, Alec remained a very modest person. Nothing gave him more professional satisfaction than witnessing the success of his students and colleagues. A generation of young vascular surgeons and investigators consider Alec their role model as a leader who inspired with his intellect and with the warmth of his friendship and collegiality. He considered his greatest achievements to be the care he gave his patients and his mentoring of young physicians.

Alec and Susan Detweiler found great happiness together in their marriage in 2000 after Alec was widowed in 1998 (Monika Clowes). Alec delighted in the family life he shared with Susan's children, Aaron and Amanda, as he experienced their college and graduate school years, family vacations and, later, their marriages. Being a grandfather to Aaron's daughters, Charlotte and Claire, and Amanda's daughter, Alice, he said, was "the joy of my life." As the Clowes family patriarch and president of The Clowes Fund since 2001, Alec provided leadership for his family's collaboration in philanthropy in Seattle, Indiana and New England. The University of Washington benefitted significantly from the philanthropy of The Clowes fund. Indeed, when Alec became ill, the Fund decided to honor his many years of dedication to their cause and established the Alexander Whitehill Clowes Chair in Vascular Surgery, a chair that Benjamin Starnes proudly occupies today. Alec wrote a biography (just published in 2016, Indiana University Press) of his paternal grandfather, George Henry Alexander Clowes, who played a pivotal role in the early history of insulin and established the Fund. The book is entitled, "The Doc and the Duchess, The Life and Legacy of George H.A. Clowes".

A long-time member of the Board of Trustees of the Seattle Symphony, Alec was particularly proud to have been involved in the building of Benaroya Hall and, more recently, the recruitment of the Symphony's new music director, Ludovic Morlot. Alec, who considered music essential to life, contributed his energy to furthering music education in under-served schools through The Clowes Fund.

Admired by his family and friends for his elegant mind, truly kind nature and generous spirit, Alec leaves a hole in the universe impossible to fill.

Alec is survived by his wife, Susan Detweiler, her children Aaron Patterson (Erin) and Amanda Lovelace (Blake), and granddaughters Charlotte, Claire, and Alice; by his mother Margaret Jackson Clowes; by his sisters Margaret Bowles (Frank) and Edith Clowes (Craig Huneke), and his brother Jonathan Clowes (Evelyn); and by ten nieces and nephews. Alec's brother Thomas Clowes (Markie) died in 2010. This diverse tribe love Alec dearly and will miss him forever.