UMass Medical School’s first faculty member to receive honorary degree

“Brownie” Wheeler fondly recalls helping Lamar Soutter build the medical school

By Kristen O’Reilly and Bryan Goodchild

UMass Medical School Communications

May 21, 2014
H. Brownell "Brownie" Wheeler, MD
H. Brownell "Brownie" Wheeler, MD

Commencement 2014When Bruce S. Cutler, MD, professor emeritus of surgery, came to campus to interview for a faculty position in 1976, he met H. Brownell “Brownie” Wheeler, MD, outside the medical school building. Dr. Wheeler, the founding chairman of the Department of Surgery and at the time serving as the first chief of staff for the hospital, headed to the stairwell to lead Dr. Cutler up to his office on the third floor for the interview, taking the stairs two at a time.

“He galloped up the stairs, and I said to myself, ‘I love this guy already,’” said Cutler. “He was a young man with a lot of energy and commitment. The interview was scheduled for an hour, but after two hours I knew this is the place I wanted to begin my academic career, and Wheeler was the man I wanted to work for.”

Wheeler needed energy in the early years of UMass Medical School, when he was instrumental in helping founding chancellor Lamar Soutter build the school from the ground up. Dr. Soutter recruited Wheeler as the first faculty member, even before the school was officially founded.

“When Dr. Soutter first approached me, there was no faculty. In July of 1964, he asked me if I would like to join him, and I said, ‘Sure why not?’ It was just him and me,” said Wheeler. “I liked him and I admired him and I thought he would be exciting to work with, despite the fact that I had no salary, he had no money, I had no title, and he had no positions to recruit for. So I started out pro bono just for the fun of it.”

For his tireless efforts, including a distinguished 25-year career as the chair of the Department of Surgery, Wheeler will receive an honorary degree at Commencement on Sunday, June 1.

More on the 2014 Commencement honorees:
--Rep. McGovern to receive Chancellor’s Medal at 41st Commencement for career of service
--Chancellor to honor Gengel family’s ‘extraordinary’ efforts to fulfill daughter’s last wish

“I wouldn’t presume to say UMass Medical School was my baby, but I was at the birth of it anyway,” said Wheeler, adding he is very proud of what the school has become. “It’s like seeing your baby grow up and graduate from a very good school with a very good record and go on to achieve things that you wouldn’t believe they could achieve early on. I feel this is an award not just for me, but for all the people who made my success a possibility. I feel that this honor is honoring the success that is due to many fathers, and mothers.”

“I can’t think of anyone more deserving of this honor,” said Demetrius E. M. Litwin, MD, the Harry M. Haidak Professor in Surgery and chair and professor of surgery. “Everything he did was in the best interest of this institution. He devoted his entire career, fundamentally, to the advancement of the University of Massachusetts Medical School.”

“He was my chairman for 22 years before he retired in 1996 and I can truthfully say, he is the most honest and fair individual I have ever met,” said Cutler.

Wheeler, a renowned vascular surgeon, educator, administrator, inventor, and end-of-life care advocate, is the Harry M. Haidak Distinguished Professor of Surgery emeritus. A 1952 graduate of Harvard Medical School, Wheeler completed his surgical training at Peter Bent Brigham Hospital and the West Roxbury Veterans Administration Hospital. He was associate professor of surgery at Harvard and chief of surgery at the West Roxbury VA Hospital before joining UMMS.

Wheeler’s principal professional interests include vascular surgery, deep vein thrombosis and pulmonary embolism, and medical education. He devoted the last part of his career to improving end-of-life care. Now in retirement, he has just completed a book based on this experience, which is scheduled for publication in July.

A member of numerous professional societies, Wheeler served as a director of the American Board of Surgery and a governor of the American College of Surgeons. He also served as president of the Boston Surgical Society, the New England Surgical Society, the New England Society of Vascular Surgery and the Massachusetts Chapter of the American College of Surgeons. In 1990, he was selected to give the Centennial Shattuck Lecture to the Massachusetts Medical Society, and, in 2000, was named president of the Worcester District Medical Society.