EARLE W. WILKINS, M.D.
1919 - 2021
Earle Wayne (Wilk) Wilkins, M.D. passed away on December 20, 2020, at the age of 101. He passed peacefully in Williamstown, Massachusetts. He was preceded in death by his wife of 75 years, Suzanne (Suki) Wilkins in 2019.
Beyond his devotion to his family, Wilk had two great loves in his life: Williams College and the Massachusetts General Hospital. At Williams College he was Phi Beta Kappa, Magna Cum Laude, class president and was a standout on the gridiron and baseball diamond. Sports Illustrated in 1966 recognized his athletic achievements by naming him to its Silver Anniversary All American Team along with such notables as Jackie Robinson, the famous baseball player. Wilk maintained close ties to his alma mater through his involvement with the Board of Trustees for 18 years after his retirement capping an 84-year relationship with the college.
His love of sports continued with his role as team physician for the Harvard hockey team and the Boston Bruins professional hockey team. Always the gentleman, he was also ever the competitor on the golf course well into his 80s. I remember a memorable round of golf at the Taconic Country Club. We reached the 18th hole with the match tied. Wilk had a 30-footer to win the match. I had a 10-footer. Wilk's 30-foot putt from the fringe found the bottom of the cup. Wilk calmly gave a fist pump coupled with that great Wilkins smile for the win (I missed mine).
After graduating AOA from Harvard Medical School in 1944 and serving in the US Navy, Wilk joined the MGH surgical residency. He came under the tutelage of Edward Churchill and ultimately Richard Sweet. Dr. Sweet was a renowned thoracic surgeon known for his expertise in esophageal surgery and would shape Wilk's professional career. He followed in Sweet's footsteps and became a master esophageal surgeon himself. He achieved a highly enviable record of zero anastomotic leaks in his career - a milestone few have achieved.
Wilk was asked to join the MGH surgical staff and became a founding member of the Thoracic Surgery Division in 1969 which was the brainchild of Dr. Gerry Austen. He spent a mid-career sabbatical on a Fulbright grant as a visiting surgeon at Allgemeines Krankenhaus/University of Vienna, Vienna, Austria. This was an experience from which he would draw a great deal and develop a number of lifelong friendships across the Atlantic. In addition to his duties in thoracic surgery, he also found time to direct the Emergency Service at the MGH for 20 years leading to the publication of the MGH Textbook of Emergency Medicine. Dr. Wilkins concluded his remarkable 40-year surgical career at the MGH in 1985.
Massachusetts General Hospital has always been fortunate to have many outstanding surgeons, educators, innovators and most importantly role models for young surgeons to emulate. Earle W. Wilkins had few peers in that regard - a role model as a surgeon, teacher, and human being. He was valued by the residents for his outstanding teaching in and out of the operating room. All who knew him looked up to him and were inspired by his example both in his surgical career and in retirement. The MGH Thoracic Surgical Service established the Wilkins Visiting Professorship in his honor to commemorate all those qualities he embodied.
During one of the visiting professorships a cardiothoracic resident asked him his secret to a successful retirement and his vitality and youthful appearance, "this last year it was half-court basketball, and I was the youngest guy on the court." Dr. Wilkins was 79 at the time. A role model even in retirement.
In retirement, Wilk and his wife were equally devoted to their community. Wilk and Suki were recognized for their community service as the 2004 recipients of the Williamstown Community Chest Good Citizen Award. They were very active in the church, the Clark Museum and many other activities. Wilk held leadership positions in the library, was President of the Taconic Golf Club and a Trustee of the Village Ambulance Service.
He will be greatly missed but his memory will continue to live on for many years by those who knew him.
DOUGLAS J. MATHISEN, M.D.