Charles Whitcher, founding member of anesthesiology department, dies at 91

Charles Whitcher helped develop new technology for patient monitoring in the operating room. Then he turned his attention to antique farm equipment. He died Oct. 13.

- By Tracie White

Charles Whitcher

Charles Whitcher, MD, professor emeritus of anesthesia at the Stanford University School of Medicine and a pioneer in developing technology for patient monitoring in the operating room, died of a stroke Oct. 13. He was 91.

After retiring from Stanford, Whitcher turned his passion for innovation in the OR to a love of rebuilding antique farm equipment.

“The remarkable advances which have occurred in patient safety in anesthesia can be traced back to many of Chuck’s original ideas,” said Ronald Pearl, MD, professor and chair of anesthesiology, pain and perioperative medicine. “He was a founding member of the department and a superb teacher who specialized in airway management. I was fortunate to learn from him. His work helped develop pulse oximetry and anesthetic agent monitoring as routine components of anesthesiology practice.”

During his 29-year career at Stanford, Whitcher trained generations of anesthesiologists. He worked as a clinician, educator and researcher, and was a key contributor to the development of anesthesia as a modern specialty of medicine.

He often provided anesthesia for surgeon Norman Shumway’s patients during the early days of heart transplantation at Stanford.

Anesthesia pioneer

“His career really paralleled the expansion in the field of anesthesia from something that was nonexistent to an explosion of knowledge,” said Fred Mihm, MD, professor of anesthesiology. “He gave so much to the field, and specifically to our department.”

Whitcher was born in 1923 in Santa Barbara, Calif. He attended Oberlin College as an undergraduate and then earned an MD from the University of Buffalo in 1949. After a two-year stint in the Army, he completed residencies in anesthesia at the University of North Carolina and Duke University. He married Sylvia Lyman in 1948, and the couple had four children. (They later divorced. She now lives in Los Altos.)

With the relocation of Stanford’s medical school to campus in 1961, Whitcher joined the faculty as an assistant professor of anesthesia. He was only the fourth member of the department.

In 1978, he received the first Anesthesia Residents’ Teacher of the Year Award.

As a researcher, Whitcher was among the first to raise concerns during the 1970s that trace gas pollution from various anesthetics could have adverse health affects on operating room personnel.

He is also known for recruiting engineering students to assist with the development of innovative methods of patient monitoring. He developed a special interest in pulse oximetry, a monitoring technique to measure oxygen levels in the blood.

“Chuck was very calm. He never got rattled,” said William New, MD, PhD, one of those early engineering students whom Whitcher recruited. New eventually went on to medical school and specialized in anesthesiology. “He rechecked everything. As doctors go, he wasn’t bad with a screwdriver, either.”

Developing a pulse oximeter

New assisted Whitcher in developing a pulse oximeter for the operating room. “The lack of oxygen was the root cause of most patients coming to grief in anesthesia,” New said. “We got a big, clunky machine that measured oxygen in the blood, from Japan. It took a strong back to move around. Chuck suggested we work on creating something like this. I said I could probably design one of these gizmos, something light that you could carry around.”

The pulse oximeter — much smaller and lighter — is now used worldwide. “Chuck certainly was one of the fathers of the pulse oximeter,” said New, clinical professor emeritus of anesthesiology. “It changed patient care.”

After retiring from Stanford in 1990, Whitcher devoted much of his time to various hobbies, in particular his collection and restoration of antique farm equipment, which he kept in a barn-like structure in his home on the Stanford campus. He married Mary Lue Eiche that same year.

Chuck certainly was one of the fathers of the pulse oximeter. It changed patient care.

“He was quite the character on campus,” said Mary Lue Whitcher, who retired in 2001 from Stanford’s registrar’s office, where she worked as manager of graduate admissions. “We have all these old tractors on our property. In his new life as a retiree, he’d be out in jeans and overalls working on tractors. He was this very passionate, professional person, but then he transferred that passion to working on old tractors.

“He was sweet, kind, very soft spoken,” she continued. “He had a smile for everyone. The people who worked around campus knew him. They’d come by to chat. He was that kind of person.”

The Whitchers’ tractor collection includes a horse-drawn grader said to have been used on Leland Stanford’s horse farm.

“It’s the most beautifully restored piece of equipment,” said James Adams, PhD, professor emeritus of mechanical engineering, a friend, neighbor and colleague for 45 years who shared Whitcher’s passion for restoring old tractors. “I’ve got my yard crammed full of machinery. He got me to go with him to the Midwest to collect farm equipment. He was wonderously meticulous, but he was also a lot of fun. He became a hero of my kids because he kept snakes and tractors.”

Whitcher served as a longtime board member of the Stanford Campus Residential Leaseholders and later in life became an advocate of compassionate end-of-life care.

In addition to his wife, he is survived by children Bruce Whitcher, DDS, of Templeton, Calif., Sarah Chenkin, PhD, of Swarthmore, Penn., and Douglas Whitcher, PhD, of Switzerland; stepchildren Greg Aitken of Eugene, Ore., and Katy Eiche, of British Columbia; and eight grandchildren. He was preceded in death a his son, David Whitcher.

A celebration of his life will be held from 4-6 p.m. Nov. 20 at the Stanford Faculty Club.

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