Kempson, a founding member of the surgical pathology department, was an inspiring teacher and mentor to hundreds of trainees.
October 25, 2022 - By Krista Conger
Richard Kempson, MD, emeritus professor of pathology and co-founder of the Stanford Medicine Surgical Pathology department, died Aug. 19 in Kailua, Hawaii. He was 92.
Kempson was remembered as an inspired leader and teacher, as well as a beloved friend and mentor to hundreds of surgical pathology trainees. He was known for his distinctive and effective teaching style, which emphasized precise diagnostic criteria and the impact of correct diagnoses on patient care. Although his specialty was in gynecologic cancer, breast cancer and soft tissue tumors, he was an expert in all facets of surgical pathology.
“Richard Kempson was instrumental in establishing an internationally recognized residency and surgical fellowship program at Stanford Medicine that trained nearly 300 pathologists in the art of diagnostic surgical pathology,” said Lloyd Minor, MD, dean of the Stanford School of Medicine. “He was world-renowned in his field, and an extraordinarily kind, thoughtful and supportive mentor. He leaves a lasting legacy.”
Teri Longacre, MD, the Richard L. Kempson Professor in Surgical Pathology, said Kempson was “legendary, not just at Stanford, but worldwide. He was one of the great thought leaders in surgical pathology as we practice it today, and extremely well respected.”
Kempson was born June 16, 1930, in Phoenix, Arizona. He attended Tulane University as an undergraduate and received his medical degree from the same university in 1955. He completed his residency in anatomic and clinical pathology at Tulane and a fellowship in surgical pathology at Washington University in St. Louis, after which he became an instructor, then an assistant professor in pathology and surgical pathology at the school.
Founding the surgical pathology division
Kempson and his longtime colleague, Ronald Dorfman, MD, were recruited to Stanford University together in 1968 from Washington University in St. Louis to establish a new division of surgical pathology, which relies on specially trained pathologists to diagnose disease through the macroscopic and microscopic examination of tissues removed from patients. Together they built a program that rapidly gained international recognition. Dorfman died in 2012, but the impact of their partnership remains.
“There was something almost magical about the Stanford Pathology department at that time,” pathologist Mahendra Ranchod, MD, then a visiting faculty member, recalled in Dorfman’s obituary. “Ron Dorfman and Dick Kempson established a great department with very high standards, and together the two, by their actions, imbued the place with a culture: We’ll all do our best, we’ll work together and we’ll do the best we can for our patients.”
Kempson was a large man with an imposing manner that could sometimes be intimidating. But his trainees, many of whom became his colleagues, remember him as a thoughtful and supportive leader.
“He took a very keen interest in the program’s residents and fellows, and he worked hard to make surgical pathology a more uniform and recognized subspeciality of pathology,” said Gerald Berry, MD, a professor of pathology who was a trainee in the program in the 1980s. “He shared his advice freely and openly, and I learned an extraordinary amount from him. He was also a terrific lecturer who was invited to speak all over the world.”
Kempson’s standing in surgical pathology is echoed in his leadership in national and international organizations. He served as president of the Association of Directors of Surgical Pathology, of the United States and Canadian Academy of Pathology, and of the California Society of Pathologists. He was on the editorial board of the American Journal of Surgical Pathology and Histopathology. In 1999 he was recognized with the Teaching Award by the California Society of Pathologists and in 2003 with the Distinguished Pathologist’s Award by the United States and Canadian Academy of Pathology.
Helping after retirement
Kempson remained closely tied to Stanford Medicine, despite his many leadership obligations and even as an emeritus professor. “Until his move to Hawaii he continued to attend meetings and participate in the department,” Longacre said. “If a pathologist had a difficult case, or they were worried about a patient, they would go up to his corner office and get his opinion.”
Outside of the lab, Kempson loved to travel and enjoyed literature, opera, and fine food and wine. He kept an extensive wine cellar and held an annual wine tasting event for fellows in the program. He was an avid student of history, rapidly devouring history books and media. In 2018, he and his wife, Vivian, moved to Hawaii, but he remained in contact with his Stanford Medicine colleagues.
Kempson’s son, Greg Kempson, said his father’s true love was working alongside the people he mentored and his colleagues, many of whom became close friends. He often went into work over weekends so that patients “would not have to suffer waiting well into the following week for their diagnosis,” and he impressed on his colleagues that “at the end of each glass slide there is a patient,” Greg Kempson said.
Besides his son, Kempson is survived by his wife, Vivian.
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