American Surgical Association Transactions

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1923 – 2016

HARRY A. OBERHELMAN, JR, M.D., 1923 – 2016

Harry A. Oberhelman Jr., MD died peacefully at his home February 10, 2016 surrounded by his loved ones, including his wife of 70 years, Betty. This was the same house on the Stanford campus that Betty and his five children called home for his entire lifetime in Palo Alto. Dr. Oberhelman was a Stanford icon for more than five decades, outlasting scores of department chairs, deans and hospital administrators. He truly was the face and soul of Stanford Surgery. Harry A. Oberhelman, Jr., affectionately known as "Dr. O", "Harry O", or simply "Harry" was born and raised in Chicago, IL, the oldest son of a surgeon, who was a most important role model for Harry. Harry attended Yale University for two years, notably excelling scholastically while also playing varsity football, but ultimately returned to the Midwest to complete his undergraduate and medical education at the University of Chicago. His MD degree was awarded in 1946, the same year he married Betty his high school sweetheart.

Following two years with the U.S. Air Force, Harry returned to the University of Chicago for his surgical residency. There his career was profoundly influenced by the chair of surgery, Dr. Lester Dragstedt, an outstanding gastrointestinal physiologist and surgeon. Dr. Dragstedt was the first to appreciate the role the vegus nerves and gastric acid secretion and trained a generation of surgical pioneers and leaders including Dr. O. Following surgical residency, Harry joined the faculty at the University of Chicago until his move to Stanford in 1959. For the next 56 years, he was THE general surgeon, the top of the heap, the "go to guy" for difficult problems or for young surgeons in distress. His influence on several generations of surgical students, residents and faculty was profound and unforgettable. He was a gifted teacher and a role model "par excellance" until his retirement from surgical practice in 2001.

But that was not the end of Harry's active life at Stanford. He became medical director of the Department of International Medicine at Stanford Hospital. Among other duties, this job required extensive travel to nations in the Pacific Rim, a part of the job that would have worn out many younger men or women. But he did it all with enthusiasm and remarkable stamina until a year ago.

Dr. Oberhelman was honored and recognized by medical and surgical organizations nationwide. He was a director of the American Board of Surgery, chairman of the California Board of Medical Quality, and the recipient of awards for both teaching and patient care from the Santa Clara Valley Medical Association and Stanford University School of Medicine. In recognition of his contributions, an endowed professorship in his name was established in the Department of Surgery; the first and current holder of the chair is Dr. Mark Lane Welton, MD, MHA.

Dr. Robert A. Chase, Emile Holman Chair Emeritus, recalls, "During my period as chairman of the Department of Surgery in the 1960's and 1970's, Harry Oberhelman was our top general surgeon. He was not only a superior technical surgeon but also an exemplary clinical investigator and beloved teacher. I have never known a nicer, more competent and talented surgeon and teacher. Harry continued his contributions throughout his long and distinguished career; he was a dear friend and colleague and a treasured contributor to my own career. I shall miss him very much."

There was a certain Midwestern innocence, even naiveté, about Harry. He was trusting of others, sometimes to his own disadvantage. For instance, many years ago, he invested in some oil wells – the non-producing kind – which had been recommended to him by one of our interns, a real hustler, who himself ended up in jail for other frauds! But Harry remained friends with that conniving intern.

Harry and his family spent many happy summers at Betty’s family cottage in the Wisconsin Northwoods. While they were there, there was lots of work to do, much of it arduous such as splitting wood and building and repairing things around the house. Harry attacked those chores much as he did with other challenges, with gusto and little concern about what the fallout from such exertion might be. Closer to home on campus his loyalty to Stanford football was legendary—family outings were rearranged to accommodate each season’s schedule. He attended the annual "Big Game" with cross Bay rival Cal for more than 50 years.

Harry's patients, often with most challenging diseases one is likely to encounter, depended on him, not just for their operations but for continuing personal and round-the-clock support. He understood 'bedside manners' – the value of a comforting hand and true empathy/care for each patient. And like his residents and colleagues, his patients loved him too.

It is difficult for all of those who knew and loved him to believe that Dr. O is gone, but he is gone only in the physical sense. His contributions to the field of surgery, especially to the education of his residents, his steadfast dependability, his collegiality, and his dedication to the care of his patients will live on forever, both at Stanford Surgery and in his colleagues and trainees. There's a little place in heaven for Harry — because of the way he practiced Surgery and lived his life.