American Surgical Association Transactions

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1929 – 2016


H. Brownell Wheeler, Brownie to all who knew him, died on November 22, 2016 after suffering a cerebral vascular accident several days earlier. All who knew him will miss him. He was a great man, a mentor to his residents and faculty alike, and a person who, in a life of enthusiastic joy, had as his greatest joy his family. That family included his biological family as well as his colleagues, residents, and students and for these, his greatest pride lay not in his considerable accomplishments as much as in those with whom he worked and whom he taught.

Raised in the small Kentucky town of Paintsville where his parents were both teachers, Brownie had an early love of reading, stimulated perhaps by his father who agreed to pay him a nickel for each book he read. In the first grade, before the development of effective antibiotics, his schooling was interrupted by severe pneumonia. He dropped out of school, and his mother relinquished her teaching post to nurse Brownie and try to help him maintain pace with his first grade class. When, after four months, he was able return to the first grade, he had advanced well beyond his peers and was moved to the second grade but even there, he was still far beyond the curriculum and was thus inserted into the third grade.

So he entered Vanderbilt University at the age of 16 in a three year/four year program: three years in college followed by four in medical school to be followed with the award of both a bachelor's and a medical degree.

Brownie must be one of the very few chairmen of surgery departments who never graduated from college. During his third year at Vanderbilt, he successfully applied to Harvard Medical School and thereby received no degrees from Vanderbilt.

At Harvard, he impressed Dr. Francis D. Moore who supported Brownie's research, and helped him obtain his residency at the Peter Bent Brigham Hospital. This was interrupted after his internship year to spend two years as a first lieutenant in the US Army Medical Corps during the Korean War. Before his chief resident year at the Brigham, he had to wait one year so he jumped to an immediately available chief resident position at the West Roxbury VA Hospital. The acting chairman of surgery took professional leave during that year and appointed Brownie as acting chairman of surgery while he was still finishing his chief residency. The next year, that acting position became permanent. At age 31, with no college degree, Brownie was the chairman of surgery.

Two years later, in 1962, the new University of Massachusetts Medical School received its charter with Lamar Soutter as founder and first chancellor. By 1964, Brownie had been recruited to be the first faculty member and chairman of the surgery department, and was later named the Harry M. Haidak Professor of Surgery. He was active in designing the new buildings, and selecting the faculty for the new school and for the hospital that opened in 1975.

Brownie was primarily a vascular surgeon but with wide ranging interests within medicine and in medical history, and in humanitarian, and philosophical pursuits both within and outside of medicine. His primary surgical interests were in deep venous thrombosis and pulmonary embolism. He was instrumental in the invention of the electrical impedance plethysmograph (IPG) for the detection of DVT.

He was a member, and usually chairman of every important hospital board.

He served on a multitude of regional and national committees including as Chairman of the ACS Credentials Committee, and Chairman of the VA Committee on Surgery; Task Force on Education, and Medical Research.

He was a member of many honorary societies including the surgery representative to The American Board of Medical Specialists, a director of the American Board of Surgery, one of the members of the Board of Governors of the ACS, the Shattuck Lecturer of the Massachusetts Medical Society, President of the New England Surgical Society, President of the New England Society for Vascular Surgery, the Society of University Surgeons, and the American Surgical Association.

He was the author of about 130 scientific papers and about 40 book chapters.

But his greatest accomplishment and honor, perhaps, was his 25 year longevity as the chairman of surgery at the University of Massachusetts Medical School. That tenure was a reflection of the universal respect in which the entire faculty, his department, and students held him. More-far more- than most, he was fair, judicious and possessed of enormous integrity.

He was also very active outside of his professional world. He trekked throughout the world with his wife, Betty, including up into the Himalayas. He was an athlete and an accomplished tennis player, playing late into his life. After his retirement in 1996 he became progressively more interested in end of life issues. Shortly before his death he published a book, "One Life, Many Deaths: A Surgeon’s Stories."

We were both fortunate to have been amongst his early faculty and have been ever grateful to Brownie for his support. He is survived by Betty, his devoted wife with whom he celebrated their 60th wedding anniversary this past summer; and his four children, Stephen, Elizabeth, Jane, and Mary; and five grandchildren.

Finally, Brownie was a conspicuously talented writer. The following poem about Betty was written by him and read to the Worcester Fire Society in 2002.