Eugene Bleck, who established pediatric orthopedics department at Stanford, dies at 91

Eugene Bleck, an expert in pediatric orthopedics, respected mentor and author of a notable book on the orthopedic treatment of cerebral palsy, died Sept. 14.

- By Sara Wykes

Eugene Bleck

Eugene Edmund Bleck, MD, who established the pediatric orthopedics department at the Stanford University School of Medicine and developed many of the specialty’s first standards of care, died Sept. 14 of respiratory failure at Mills-Peninsula Hospital in San Mateo. He was 91.

Bleck also served as chief of the Orthopedics Division at Stanford Hospital, now Stanford Health Care, from 1982 to 1988. He was succeeded by one of his former residents, Lawrence Rinsky, MD. Another of Bleck’s former residents, William Maloney, MD, is now professor and chair of orthopedic surgery at Stanford.

“Gene was a larger than life figure, enthralling and full of energy,” Rinsky said. “He was quick to laugh, humble and a treasured mentor, colleague and physician to many.”

Bleck’s professional accomplishments were numerous: He was a founding member of a pediatric orthopedics study group, which became the Pediatric Orthopaedic Society of North America, and served as president of the society, as well as of the American Orthopedic Association and the American Academy for Cerebral Palsy and Developmental Medicine.

Wrote first book as a resident

While a resident in orthopedic surgery at Duke University Medical Center, Bleck wrote his first scholarly book, An Atlas of Plaster Cast Techniques. It became an instant classic, Rinsky said. Bleck and his wife, Anne, moved to San Mateo in 1955, and Bleck established a private practice that was increasingly focused on care for children with cerebral palsy. His book, The Orthopaedic Treatment of Cerebral Palsy, published in 1979, established Bleck as the top expert in that field. The book is still in print and considered a respected comprehensive reference source to be read “cover to cover,” according to a 2009 review in the Journal of American Medical Association. He was also the author of four other books on cerebral palsy and 85 publications in refereed journals.

In 1972, Bleck left private practice to join Stanford’s faculty as an associate professor of orthopedic surgery. “He was upfront and honest with patients — and very genuine,” said Dennis Bellew, MD, another Bleck-trained orthopedic surgeon.

“His clinics always felt serene and not rushed,” said former resident Fritz Collins, MD, who also trained under Bleck. “It seemed as though the patient, or a mom or dad, would have a chance to ask questions.”

A series of firsts at Stanford

With his residents, Bleck bucked tradition. Not only did he invite them to his home for Christmas — very unusual in those days — and give them all nicknames, he saw them more as postdoctoral scholars who should not be wasting time on what he called scut work. He admitted the first woman to a Stanford orthopedic surgery residency, brought arthroscopy to Stanford, performed Stanford’s first anterior surgery for scoliosis and ended the hospital’s reuse of surgical tourniquets to better guard against the risk of infection.

And he never forgot that sometimes the best thing is to do was to do nothing. “His metric was, ‘Is the treatment we are about to do going to help keep this child more of a child — or more of a patient?’” Rinsky said.

His desire to be of direct help to people may have been what motivated Bleck, somewhat of a chemistry geek in high school, to leave Abbott Laboratories, where he had gone to work right out of high school, and start pre-med classes at Marquette University in September 1941. He enlisted in the U.S. Navy Reserve and served a short tour as a medical corpsman at the Great Lakes Naval Station. He graduated from Marquette’s medical school in 1947 and interned at St. Francis Hospital in Evanston, Ill., before going to Duke University as an orthopedic surgery resident. He volunteered for active duty as a U.S. Navy medical officer during the Korean War and, after sea duty, treated patients at the naval amputation center at the U.S. Naval Hospital in Oakland, Calif.

Speaking invitations

Bleck’s knowledge and expertise brought him frequent invitations to lecture and appointments as a visiting professor in the United States, Europe, South America and Asia. He spent two sabbaticals in France and often volunteered to lecture and treat patients in Southeast Asia.

Bleck and his wife, Anne, were married 63 years, until her death in 2013. He is survived by sons John and Patrick; daughters Mary and Jane; brothers Jack, Tom and Dan; a sister, Carol; and seven grandchildren. Another son, Dan, preceded him in death.

Jane Deife said her family always knew that, in spite of the 12- to 14-hour days her father worked, family was the most important thing for him. “He made an effort for us to have extended vacations as a family, and he always made things fun,” she said. “We had so many happy times.”

The family always ate dinner together, even if that meant waiting past its typical time, she said.

He and Anne traveled widely, and he remained a passionate gardener, known especially for his tomato crop. He was also known as a gourmet cook. Collins remembers Bleck serving up a dinner to him and Bellew that featured a chicken roasted with 40 cloves of garlic.

And he continued to surprise his colleagues with his zest. Nearing 80, Bleck and his wife joined Rinsky and his wife kayaking in the open ocean. “It was testing and even a little frightening to be out there with orcas nearby, but he kept his cool,” Rinsky said.

A memorial mass was held Sept. 22. The family requests that memorial contributions be made to Marquette University, Henry B. Bleck Scholarship Fund in Civil Engineering, 1212 Building #215, P.O. Box 1881, Milwaukee, WI 53201-1881, or to the Gregorian University Foundation, 106 W. 56th St., New York, NY 10016. 

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