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October 15, 2001


Henry O. Wheeler, M.D., a respected gastroenterologist and one of the original members of the UCSD School of Medicine faculty, died October 12 at UCSD Thornton Hospital in La Jolla, CA.  He was 77.  Cause of death was respiratory failure following a brief illness. 

“Dr. Henry Wheeler was a founding faculty member of the UCSD School of Medicine. His enormous distinction as a physician, scientist and teacher and perhaps even more, his personal qualities of integrity, enthusiasm, perseverance and statesmanship, played a critical role in setting the medical school on its path to greatness,” said Eugene Braunwald, M.D., Distinguished Hersey Professor of Medicine at Harvard University and the founding Chair of the Department of Medicine at UCSD (1968-1972).    “No person contributed more to the early history of this important medical center.”

After completing his undergraduate education at Cal Tech, which was interrupted by a three-year stint in the U.S. Army Air Force from 1943-46, he went on to earn his M.D. at Harvard Medical School.  He completed his training at Presbyterian Hospital in New York, and began his academic career at the College of Physicians & Surgeons at Columbia University.  From 1961-1962, he was a Guggenheim Foundation Fellow and Fulbright Research Scholar at the University of Copenhagen.

He continued to hold appointments at Presbyterian Hospital and Columbia University where he was a Markle Scholar and Professor of Medicine. In 1968, he was recruited to the new School of Medicine at the University of California, San Diego as the first Chief of the Division of Gastroenterology. 

Dr. Wheeler’s research interests lay in the physiology of the liver and liver disease.  His seminal contributions included fundamental observations about biliary secretion, bile flow and basic transport physiology.  He elucidated mechanisms of bile flow and ion transport and secretion in the gall bladder. 

Said Alan Hofmann, M.D., Professor of Medicine in the Gastroenterology Division at UCSD, “Dr. Wheeler’s work was characterized by great precision, clear experimental designs, imaginative data analysis, and papers of brevity, scholarship and elegance.”

He became a respected advisor and reviewer for journals and for the NIH, and was sought after to organize and chair various scientific research sessions because of his “kindly and gentlemanly demeanor and impeccable sense of fairness,” said William G. Hardison, M.D., a former Professor and Chief of Gastroenterology at UCSD.  “He was a prominent, well-known and universally well-liked figure in American academic gastroenterology.” 

In 1982, Dr. Wheeler relinquished leadership of the Division of Gastroenterology to head the newly developing Division of General Internal Medicine.  Always an excellent clinician, he nurtured the academic aspects of that division that included strong programs in medical teaching and in geriatrics.  When he retired in 1988, becoming Professor Emeritus of Medicine, he was honored by his colleagues with “Henry Wheeler Day,” a day-long program of invited lectures by prominent speakers, including Dr. Jared Diamond of UCLA.

“Dr. Wheeler has had a profound influence on his students and colleagues since the founding of the Medical School,” said Roger Spragg, M.D., Interim Chair of Medicine at UCSD.  “He was deeply admired and respected for his humanity, his wisdom, and his clarity of thought.  He will be greatly missed.”

“In addition to Dr. Wheeler’s remarkable stature and achievements as a physician and scientist, his selfless service to UCSD was legendary.  He sought neither recognition nor acknowledgement for the many tasks in a new medical school that he gracefully undertook and skillfully completed.  There was no one else like him,” said Helen Ranney, M.D., former Chair of the Department of Medicine.

He is also remembered for his artistic accomplishments outside of the medical arena, and once said he was as serious about photography as he was about medicine.  Said Lea Rudee, Ph.D., Research Professor and founding Dean of the Jacobs School of Engineering at UCSD, and former President of the Board of Trustees of the Museum of Photographic Arts,  “Dr. Wheeler was a master craftsman accomplished in darkroom photography and later in digital photography.  He had an artist’s eye for architectural subjects and landscapes.”

He and his wife Isabel traveled extensively, and through color photography he captured the scenes that reflected his own rare sense of humanity, whether through portraits or landscapes which often included a human component.   His photographs have appeared in scientific publications and many are exhibited at the UCSD Faculty Club and the UCSD Medical Centers at La Jolla and Hillcrest.

Among his community commitments, he was an advisory director of the San Diego Opera and a member of the University Art Gallery.  For many years he was a member of the Board of the Good Samaritan Hospital in Los Angeles.

Dr. Wheeler is survived by his wife of 54 years, Isabel; his daughters Mary Wheeler of Washington, D.C., and Dr. Charlotte Wheeler of Portland, OR; his sister Katharine Meserve of San Clemente, CA; and five nieces and nephews.

There will be no memorial service.  In lieu of flowers, the family requests contributions to The Henry O. Wheeler Fund, which will support the educational program of the UCSD Department of Medicine, and the University Art Gallery.  Checks may be sent to the UCSD Foundation, UCSD, 9500 Gilman Drive, La Jolla, CA  92093-0940, noting that the donation is for The Henry O. Wheeler Fund.

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Media Contact: Leslie Franz (619) 543-6163 

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