In memoriam: H. Brownell Wheeler, MD, UMMS founding chair of surgery, 1929-2016

Beloved physician, educator and mentor was a surgical pioneer and visionary of academic medicine

By Sandra Gray

UMass Medical School Communications

November 22, 2016
  • H. Brownell Wheeler, MD
  • H. Brownie Wheeler (back row, fourth from left) with other UMMS founding chairs in 1995
  • Dr. Wheeler with residents on the ward
  • Dr. Wheeler in the Lamar Soutter Library at UMass Medical School

The UMass Medical School community is saddened by the death of H. Brownell Wheeler, MD, founding chair of surgery and the Harry M. Haidak Distinguished Professor of Surgery Emeritus at UMass Medical School, according to an announcement from Chancellor Michael F. Collins. Dr. Wheeler died on Nov. 22, at age 87.

“Dr. Wheeler was a surgical pioneer and visionary architect of academic medicine who left an indelible mark on UMass Medical School,” said Chancellor Michael F. Collins. “He was beloved by many as a physician, educator, mentor and friend. To some, he was known as the patriarch of our institution.”

“For his tireless efforts to help create and shape UMMS, Dr. Wheeler was honored with an honorary degree at Commencement 2014. At that time, we reflected on Dr. Wheeler’s profound legacy, and lasting imprint on our medical school, which endures to this day.”

In 1971, Wheeler became the founding chair of the UMMS Department of Surgery, serving in this position for 25 years. His fateful decision during the mid-1960s to join founding Dean Lamar Soutter, MD, on a fabled endeavor set into motion a magnificent transformation, turning a wind-swept dairy farm in central Massachusetts into a leading hub for academic medicine at the crossroads of education, science and health. Wheeler also served as chief of staff for the UMMS clinical system from 1974 to 1976, the period during which the hospital was staffed, equipped and opened for patient care.

A 1952 graduate of Harvard Medical School, Wheeler completed his surgical training at Peter Bent Brigham Hospital and the West Roxbury Veterans Administration Hospital. His principal professional interests included vascular surgery, deep vein thrombosis and pulmonary embolism; he also focused on medical history and the medical humanities. In retirement, Wheeler concentrated on improving end-of-life care, lecturing extensively on the topic. The founding president of both the Massachusetts Compassionate Care Coalition and the Central Mass. Partnership to Improve Care at the End of Life, Wheeler helped to introduce a new course promoting excellence in end-of-life care into the medical student curriculum.

Wheeler was a member of numerous professional societies, serving terms as a director of the American Board of Surgery; a governor of the American College of Surgeons; and president of the Boston Surgical Society, the New England Surgical Society, and the New England Society of Vascular Surgery, as well as the Massachusetts Chapter of the American College of Surgeons. In 2000, he was named president of the Worcester District Medical Society.

In 2005, Wheeler received the Lifetime Achievement Award from the Massachusetts Medical Society. Presented by the statewide organization to an individual who has made a lasting contribution to the practice of medicine over his or her lifetime, the award specifically recognized Wheeler as “a compassionate and dedicated physician who inspires all by his many fine qualities: wisdom, grace, wit, personal and professional integrity."

Dr. Wheeler leaves behind his wife of 60 years, Betty, and four children.

Hear more about him in this video, and read more about his legacy and career in the online history of UMass Medical School.

Related stories on UMassMedNow:
UMass Medical School’s first faculty member to receive honorary degree
Founding chair of surgery pens One Life, Many Deaths: A Surgeon’s Stories