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William Hancock, leader in electrocardiography, dies at 93

During his long career at Stanford and into retirement, Hancock advanced techniques used to interpret electrocardiograms, recordings of the heart’s electrical signals.

- By Tracie White

William Hancock

William Hancock, MD, professor emeritus of medicine and pioneer in the use and interpretation of electrocardiograms to screen for heart disease, died Dec. 1. He was 93.

“Bill made exceptional contributions to the field of cardiology during his long and prestigious career at Stanford,” said Lloyd Minor, MD, dean of the School of Medicine. “He will be remembered as a dedicated teacher and mentor and for the groundbreaking techniques he developed for reading ECGs. His lasting impact shaped his field and our community, and Stanford Medicine mourns his loss.”

Hancock spent decades training and mentoring young cardiologists in the use of technology and in physical exams to diagnose and treat patients. Before retiring, he was director of Stanford’s ECG lab.

“Bill spent much of his academic life teaching and developing the sophisticated algorithms that are now used every day to analyze and interpret ECGs by computer,” said John Schroeder, MD, a cardiologist and professor of medicine, who joined Hancock at Stanford in 1962. “This was a lifetime and massive undertaking which he simply and patiently perfected day after day.”

Hancock was born April 6, 1927, in Lincoln, Nebraska. After graduating from the University of Nebraska, he served 15 months in the U.S. Navy. He earned a medical degree at Harvard University in 1952 and joined the Stanford faculty in 1960 in the division of cardiology. He lived in Palo Alto for the next 60 years.

In the 1960s, Hancock made notable contributions to the understanding of heart conditions, including mitral valve prolapse, pericardial disease and heart disease caused by cancer radiation treatments. He was also involved in the nascent heart transplant program at Stanford, led by the late Norm Shumway, MD, PhD, who performed the first successful heart transplant in the United States.

In the 1980s, Hancock served as chairman of the cardiovascular board of the American Board of Internal Medicine, which bestows the title “board certified” to practicing cardiologists. 

‘A wonderful mentor’

Hancock embodied “the intellectual aspects of cardiology,” said Randall Vagelos, MD, professor of medicine, who joined the cardiology division at Stanford in 1986 as a postdoctoral scholar. 

“He was such a good teacher that they named the divisional teaching award the Hancock Award. That was voted on by the fellows,” Vagelos said. “He was always approachable. He really did feel like your older uncle. He wore a brown tweed coat and his shoes looked like they needed to be shined a little bit better.”

Schroeder added, “Bill was a wonderful mentor, and his door was always open to discuss patients and ECGs if you could get around the massive piles of printed ECGs in his office.”

The ECG lab was particularly colorful under his direction, Schroeder said. Hancock’s wife of 57 years, Joan, who is an artist, painted one entire wall of the lab with a California landscape of oak trees and golden grass. She also brought in old furniture painted in whimsical colors that became buried under more ECG printouts.

Hancock retired in 1994 but continued teaching electrocardiography and consulting on computer-based ECG analysis. In 1997, he received the Albion Walter Hewlett Award in honor of his lifelong contributions to research and teaching at Stanford.

Accomplished pianist

Hancock was an accomplished pianist and continued to play into his 90s. He anchored countless Christmas caroling parties, including one at the age of 92. He and Joan met through his piano playing when they were both living in the same apartment building in Palo Alto.

“The apartment building was built around a center garden,” Joan Hancock said. “Bill would start practicing, and everyone would open their windows. It was like a concert. When it came time for Christmas, we asked if he would play Christmas carols for our party. That’s how we met.”

In addition to holding season tickets to the opera and the symphony, Hancock was an avid sports fan who closely followed the Stanford football team and the San Francisco Giants baseball team. When his children were young, Hancock would bicycle with them to Stanford football games on Saturdays.

“The three boys all played high school football,” Joan Hancock said. “Bill was very proud.”

In addition to Joan, Hancock is survived by his sons — William, Nelson and Adam —and their families.

The family is planning to hold an outdoor memorial service later this year.

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