Nov. 11, 1993
Vol. 13, No. 6

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    Walter L. Palmer, Medicine

    Walter L. Palmer (S.B.'18, S.M.'19, M.D.'21, Ph.D.'26), the Richard T. Crane Professor Emeritus in Medicine, died Oct. 28 at Bernard Mitchell Hospital from complications following a broken leg. One of the original eight faculty members of what is now the Pritzker School of Medicine, Palmer was 97 years old.

    An internationally respected internist and gastroenterologist and a distinguished scientist and teacher, Palmer was a pioneer in the development of the field of gastroenterology, bringing a new level of scientific understanding to the diagnosis and treatment of digestive diseases, particularly peptic ulcers, gastrointestinal cancers and ulcerative colitis.

    "He was one of the giants of internal medicine and gastroenterology," said Joseph Kirsner, Louis Block Distinguished Service Professor in Medicine, who succeeded Palmer as chief of gastroenterology at the Medical Center. "When Walter began to practice, gastroenterology was an art -- speculative, impressionistic, anecdotal, almost mystical at times. It wasn't looked upon as a respectable specialty, or as a specialty at all. Then, without losing the human side, he brought science to the field."

    In the 1920s, Palmer organized one of the first controlled clinical studies to understand the pain caused by peptic ulcers, devising research methods that were far ahead of his time. "His work in the 1920s became the standard in the 1970s," Kirsner said. "Dr. Palmer set the stage for the development of the whole field."

    His early investigations into peptic ulcers revealed that acid secretion, not gastric contractions, caused the pain associated with ulcers, a finding that changed forever the way ulcers were treated. He also made major contributions to the understanding and treatment of inflammatory bowel disease and gastric cancer. In the early 1950s, Palmer and colleagues at the Medical Center devised techniques for the early diagnosis of cancer of the gastrointestinal tract by retrieving and analyzing cells shed from the esophagus, stomach or colon.

    Despite his illustrious career, Palmer described himself as a "glorified country doctor." Born in Evanston, Walter Palmer was raised in Castle Rock, Colo., where he routinely accompanied his father, a true country doctor, on his horse-and-buggy rounds.

    He attended Colorado College for three years, then transferred to the University, where he received his bachelor's and master's degrees and then his M.D. from the University and Rush Medical College in 1921. While serving his residency at Cook County and Presbyterian hospitals, Palmer earned his Ph.D. in physiology.

    He attributed his decision to specialize in gastroenterology to his "own bellyache," which began when he was a teen-ager. Originally misdiagnosed as chronic appendicitis -- a popular diagnosis at the time -- Palmer later diagnosed himself as having irritable bowel syndrome.

    After a year of study in Berlin and Vienna, Palmer was appointed Assistant Professor in Medicine at the University of Chicago School of Medicine when it opened in 1927, and he soon organized at the school one of the first full-time academic gastroenterology sections in the United States. He became Associate Professor in 1930 and Professor in 1941. During World War II, he served as a consultant in gastroenterology to the Surgeon General of the Army. In 1954 he was named the Richard T. Crane Professor in Medicine, and in 1961 he was elected president of the University of Chicago Cancer Research Foundation. He retired in 1962, but he continued to live in Hyde Park and see patients at nearby Woodlawn Hospital (which has since closed) until 1985.

    Palmer's impact reached far beyond the specialty of gastroenterology. He served from 1956 to 1957 as president of the American College of Physicians (ACP), the leading internists' organization in the country. He served as president of the American Gastroenterological Association from 1946 to 1947 and as chairman of the editorial board for its journal, Gastroenterology, from 1950 to 1955. During those same years, he was also chairman of the editorial board of the Annals of Internal Medicine.

    Palmer received numerous honors. The ACP named him a "master physician," its highest honor, in 1961. He was a member of the Association of American Physicians and of the gastroenterological societies of Germany, Chile and Peru and was made Commander of the Order of "Hipolito Unanue" by the President of Peru in 1967.

    Palmer was also active in the Hyde Park community, serving as president of the South East Chicago Commission from 1969 to 1979.

    The University, with the help of many patients and friends, honored him with the creation of the Walter L. Palmer Fund, which supports a visiting lectureship, and the Walter L. Palmer Distinguished Service Professorship.

    He is survived by his sons Robert Palmer of Ardmore, Penn., who is a physician at SmithKline Beecham, and Henry Palmer of Chicago, an internist; and one daughter, Mrs. Robert (Elisabeth) Eldridge of Toronto. His wife, Elisabeth, daughter of the distinguished University physician Howard Taylor Ricketts, died in 1981. A son, Donald Walter Palmer, also an internist, died in 1983.

    A memorial service will be held at Hyde Park Union Church at 4 p.m. Friday, Nov. 19. Burial in Kirkwood, Ill., will be private. In lieu of flowers, contributions may be directed to the Howard Taylor Ricketts Fund at the University of Chicago, to Hyde Park Union Church or to Planned Parenthood.