John N Wettlaufer , MD

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Date of Death

Sep 20, 2015


John N. Wettlaufer, M.D. Dr. John Nichols Wettlaufer, a pioneer in military trauma surgery who translated his skills across disciplines into cancer research, passed away from complications due to pneumonia on 20 September 2015 in Gig Harbor, Washington. Born June 9, 1930, in Boston, Massachusetts, Dr. Wettlaufer was raised with seven siblings. Following undergraduate studies at Bates College in 1952, he "played up" with the Boston Red Sox, but forwent a baseball career to enlist in the Army, doing research in cryogenic injuries, at Fort Knox. In 1958 Dr. Wettlaufer received his M.D. with honors from Georgetown University with a prescient Gold Medal in Oncology, which was to act as an intellectual rostrum for his later academic career. Following residency at Walter Reed, from 1963 he was Chief of Urology in US military hospitals in Japan, developing new surgical techniques to treat Vietnam war injuries. It is one of the positive consequences of armed conflict that the methods of injury treatment advance far beyond what opportunities provide in the civilian world. Yet the generality of the advances necessarily made by military physicians translate to situations far beyond their origin. From 1969-1977, when he retired as a Colonel, Dr. Wettlaufer had mentored some 35 residents at Madigan Army Medical Center, Tacoma, Washington. With Dr. John Weigel he wrote a book on trauma surgery published in 2008. During the following 13 years at the University of Colorado he used innovative surgical skills and his background in oncology to tackle pressing problems in previously untreatable aggressive cancers. Given the complicated nature of the associated surgeries, the cooperation of military theater medicine was crucial to success in this arena, which required multidisciplinary approaches. In this period, Dr. Wettlaufer trained over 70 residents in the dual approach of creative surgery and oncology, thereby parlaying the corpus of his experience into frontline cancer research. At the beginning of the first Gulf War, 1990, the military realized that many of their young physicians could not rely on receiving training from senior staff with real wartime experience, for most of the Vietnam veterans had retired. Thus, at the beginning of operations Desert Shield and Desert Storm, Dr. Wettlaufer volunteered to return to active duty and shortly thereafter once again became Chief of Urology and Residency Program Director, Madigan Army Medical Center, serving there from 1991-1995. It is an unfortunate reality that continuing military conflicts have required medical expertise of the type that Dr. Wettlaufer developed and taught to generations of surgeons. Dr. Wettlaufer again retired from the military in 1995, but still served the Army as a consultant and as a clinical professor of surgery at the Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences, Bethesda, Maryland. He remained active through various hospital staff assignments in the Pacific Northwest, as well as being clinical professor at the University of Washington, Seattle, and as president of the Puget Sound Urologic Society (2011). Dr. Wettlaufer, a Fellow of the American College of Surgeons, twice received the Legion of Merit (1977, 1995), the "A"-prefix from the Surgeon General of the Army (1976), and the Stevenson Award from the Society of Government Urologists (1995), of which he was President (1975, 1992). In 2010 he received the Presidential citation of the American Urological Association (AUA), for "contributions to urology, patient care, surgical expertise, and education", and the Western Section of the AUA honored him with as Distinguished Member in 2011. His true legacy lies in the many thousands of war veterans, whose lives would be different were it not for urgent care he directly, and indirectly (through his mentoring) delivered. He was predeceased by his wife Rita C. Wettlaufer, and is survived by his sister Marie Dora Thornburg of Chicago, his children Mrs. Catherine Buehler, Captain USN Michael Wettlaufer, and Dr. John S. Wettlaufer, and his grandchildren Grace, Jay-Henry and Claire Buehler, and Tor Wettlaufer.



Published in News Tribune (Tacoma) on Oct. 27, 2015