Obstetrician LeRoy Heinrichs, evangelist for virtual medical training, dies at 90

The Stanford Medicine professor emeritus of obstetrics and gynecology was an early adopter of less invasive surgical techniques, a pioneer in treating infertility and an evangelist for virtual medical training.

- By Jennifer Welsh

LeRoy Heinrichs

William LeRoy Heinrichs, MD, PhD, a professor emeritus of obstetrics and gynecology at the Stanford School of Medicine, died Sept. 21. He was 90.

Chair of the Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology from 1976 until 1984, Heinrichs pursued minimally invasive surgical techniques, took an early interest in fertility and hormone treatments as well as surgical treatment of endometriosis, and was a champion of virtual medical training technologies.

“LeRoy Heinrichs helped change the field of obstetrics and gynecology by embracing future-facing treatments such as laparoscopic surgery,” said Lloyd Minor, MD, dean of the school of medicine. “He employed that forward-thinking attitude in his teaching, becoming a successful designer of systems to virtually train students in surgery.”

Heinrichs’ legacy as chair was one of positive growth, according to Gerald Shefren, MD, adjunct clinical professor emeritus of obstetrics and gynecology.

“He modernized the department,” Shefren said. Heinrichs brought on specialists with academic and clinical expertise in specialties like high-risk maternal-fetal medicine or cancers of the reproductive system. “That talent was good for the academic environment, but also good for the care of people in the community.”

Heinrichs offered a hand to new hires, according to Mary Lake Polan, MD, PhD, professor emeritus of obstetrics and gynecology. When she was recruited to Stanford as chair in 1990, she said, “LeRoy was very helpful in mentoring me through my initial years. He had been around a long time. He knew the personalities. And he was very helpful in determining how those personalities would respond to new issues and decisions.”

Farm to lab

Growing up on a dairy farm, Heinrichs’ love of science and technology started early. He was born Aug. 14, 1932, in Collinsville, Oklahoma, to Daniel and Ruby Heinrichs, one of four boys.

On the farm, they used technologies, advanced for the time, to evaluate their cows’ milk production and perform artificial insemination and selective breeding on the herd. Heinrichs also took a scientific approach to poultry breeding, winning grand champion of the world’s largest poultry show at age 12.

He graduated from Central High School in Collinsville in 1950 and received his bachelor’s degree in biology and chemistry from Southwestern Oklahoma State University.

He attended the University of Oklahoma College of Medicine, earning a medical degree in 1958. He did his internship at the SMM Health St. Anthony Hospital in Oklahoma City and his residency in obstetrics and gynecology at the DMC Harper University Hospital in Detroit.

After residency, Heinrichs attended the Oregon Health & Science University in Portland, Oregon, earning a PhD in biochemistry in 1967.

From then until 1976, when he arrived at Stanford University, Heinrichs was a professor of obstetrics and gynecology at the University of Washington School of Medicine.

A forward-shifted focus

Heinrichs was a leader in reproductive endocrinology and infertility, studying the biochemistry of hormones and the effect of environmental chemicals on pregnancy. He was also an early adopter of less invasive laparoscopic surgery for conditions such as endometriosis and other causes of infertility and pelvic pain.

After he stepped down as chair in 1984, Heinrich remained a professor of obstetrics and gynecology until 1991, when he became a professor emeritus to indulge his passion for virtual learning. He developed technologies and simulator applications for training medical students and physicians in advanced and remote surgical procedures. He launched his first startup, Surginetics, in 1992.

He retired from clinical work in 1994 and spent the rest of his career designing technologies for surgical simulations and virtual medical training. He became the associate director of the Stanford University Medical Media and Information Technologies group, through which he developed Surgical Workbench, a program to teach the manipulative skills and maneuvers of surgery, and Virtual World, a program to help medical students improve communication and decision making.

In 2008, he left Stanford Medicine to take the helm as executive medical officer of a company he founded, Innovation in Learning, in Los Altos, California, designing a virtual learning environment called CliniSpace.

An active community life

In 1954, Heinrichs married Phyllis Smith, with whom he shared 68 years of marriage and two children. When he took the job at Stanford University, the couple settled in Menlo Park, California, where he was active in several organizations, including the Menlo Church men’s fellowship group.

Heinrichs loved music, frequenting the San Francisco Symphony and California Pops concerts. He enjoyed walking in his community daily and chatting with neighbors. He often attended his grandchildren’s sporting events.

Throughout his career, Heinrichs won many awards and honors. In 1975 he won the President’s Award from the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists. In 2011 and 2012 respectively, Innovation in Learning’s CliniSpace and BattleCare won Grand Prize at the Defense GameTech Users conference.  His simulation work at Stanford also earned him the Satava Award at the Medicine Meets Virtual Reality conference.

Heinrichs is survived by his wife, Phyllis Heinrichs, and his two children: Lynn and Stephen. He has three grandchildren and one great-grandchild. Heinrichs was preceded in death by his parents and three brothers, Harold, Raymond and Don.

About Stanford Medicine

Stanford Medicine is an integrated academic health system comprising the Stanford School of Medicine and adult and pediatric health care delivery systems. Together, they harness the full potential of biomedicine through collaborative research, education and clinical care for patients. For more information, please visit med.stanford.edu.

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