Stanford radiologist F. Graham Sommer dies at 70

The professor emeritus of radiology was remembered for his commitment to research and mentoring, and his love of music.

- By Jennie Dusheck

F. Graham Sommer

Frank Graham Sommer, MD, a professor emeritus of radiology at the Stanford University School of Medicine and an accomplished pianist, died Oct. 2 of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis at his home on the Stanford campus. He was 70.

An expert in ultrasound imaging and other radiological imaging techniques, Sommer received the 2016 Academy of Radiology Research’s Distinguished Investigator Award. His genial personality helped create a warm, collegial and professional environment in the medical school’s Department of Radiology, said colleague Michael Federle, MD, a professor of radiology.

“He always lived life to the fullest,” said Federle.

A ‘Renaissance radiologist’

Sommer was born in Victoria, British Columbia, in 1946. He earned a bachelor’s degree in physics from the University of Victoria and a medical degree from McGill University in Montreal. He joined the faculty at Stanford in 1979.

Sommer had wide-ranging interests in his field, humorously characterizing himself as a “Renaissance radiologist.” He studied and promoted improved imaging techniques and is known for his work on ultrasound and imaging blood flow in the kidneys.

“He was a driven man,” said his wife, Denise Leclair. “He had such a hungry mind; it drove him.”

But he didn’t conform to the stereotype of the super-focused, socially inept scientist, she said. Sommer was adventurous, thoughtful, kind, generous and charming, she said. He was also very logical and a careful planner, she said. “But then he would say something, and it would just stop the conversation and make you laugh.”

When not at work, he would often play the piano for audiences at Filoli, an estate in Woodside that's open to the public, and at restaurants and senior centers — favoring classical, popular and ragtime music.

Sommer recently pledged $1 million to McGill University to fund a Canada-wide competition for composers. The competition, intended to support composers under age 35 and to promote the creation of new musical works, will launch in 2017

Besides his work and his music, Sommer enjoyed biking, skiing and windsurfing, as well as playing tennis, golf, racquetball and squash.

Federle called him a “tremendous athlete.” In a typical experience playing golf with Sommer, said Federle, Sommer would show up to tee off, having already taken a 20- or 30-mile mountain bike ride. “Then he’d walk 18 holes of golf.”

 Leclair said Sommer planned everything he did carefully, carrying his research habits into his daily life. In 1995, when Sommer and Leclair had just met, she recalled: “We were making a recipe of salmon in filo dough.” It was his habit to make a recipe many times, slightly altering the recipe each time until he thought it was perfect, she said. But Leclair impulsively decided to throw some blackberries inside the filo dough with the salmon. “He was astounded!” Leclair laughed. And he never forgot that she had done that, often bringing it up in later years.

In addition to Leclair, Sommer is survived by a sister, Anne Axford of West Vancouver, British Columbia. A celebration of his life will be held at 1 p.m. Oct. 28 at Alta Mesa Funeral Home, 695 Arastradero Road, Palo Alto.

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