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Dr. Walter B. Shelley

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SHELLEY Walter Brown M.D., Ph.D Dr. Walter B. Shelley, a world-renowned dermatologist, died at home in Grand Rapids, Ohio on January 30, 2009, one week shy of his 92nd birthday. The cause of death was viral gastroenteritis complicating colorectal cancer. Born in 1917 in St. Paul, MN, "Shelley" grew up in Duluth, where his "prize fighter" father worked as a railroad switchman for the Soo Line. His father's hobby, dictated by the Depression, was moving from apartment to apartment, so that during his boyhood, Walter moved 19 times. This frequent uprooting left him with a lifelong disinterest in possessions and the constant desire to throw things out. He excelled academically in a strict Catholic Boys high school, and actively participated in the Boy Scouts, becoming an Eagle Scout with 57 merit badges. He longed to escape the harsh northern Minnesota winters of Duluth, and after two years of Junior College in Duluth finally gained a scholarship to the University of Southern California. During his one year in California he ushered every night at the Shrine Auditorium and two theaters in Los Angeles, getting to hear and meet many famous conductors, musicians, and entertainers of the 1930's, including George Gershwin, Leopold Stokowski and Jack Benny. After only three years of college, he entered the University of Minnesota Medical School in Minneapolis, where by 1943 he obtained a B.S. and Ph.D. degrees in Physiology, as well as an M.D. He married his college sweetheart, Marguerite Weber, and moved to Detroit for a 9-month internship at Henry Ford Hospital, cut short by WWII and the need for doctors. He first became an Army doctor responsible for 80 dermatology beds at the Army hospital in McKinney, Texas. After he discharged 55 patients in the first two weeks, an angry hospital administration arranged for his transfer to Alaska two weeks later. While he was standing on the train platform waiting to leave, an Army jeep roared up with new orders for a transfer to the Fort Knox Armored Medical Research Laboratory. Here he spent the rest of the war, running a "hot room" to determine the limitations of sweating in tropical combat and learning to drive a tank (before he even knew how to drive a car). After the war he became a dermatology resident for three years under Dr. Donald M. Pillsbury at the University of Pennsylvania, thanks to the insistence of Clarence S. Livingood, M.D., a junior faculty member at Penn. He then served one year on the medical school staff at Dartmouth, working with Dr. Walter C. Lobitz, before returning to Philadelphia to practice with Dr. Pillsbury as his partner for the next 25 years. Together with Pillsbury and Albert M. Kligman, M.D., Ph.D., Shelley wrote the first major American textbook of Dermatology, Dermatology (1956). He practiced half-days, four days per week and spent the remainder of his time doing research, most notably with Harry J. Hurley, M.D., Sc.D. and Lennart Juhlin, M.D., Ph.D. (from Sweden). His particular interests centered on the eccrine and apocrine sweat glands, Langerhans cells, pruritus, and urticaria. At Penn he wrote over 300 clinical and research papers, as well as 5 books: Classics in Clinical Dermatology, Apocrine Sweat Glands, Consultations in Dermatology with Walter B. Shelley, Vols. I and II, and the Manual of Cutaneous Medicine. He became Chairman of the Dermatology Department in 1965, replacing Pillsbury. He also served as special Air Force Consultant for Dermatology, flying all over the world to visit military hospitals. His home life was very happy, with Marguerite and their three children, Peter, Anne, and Barbi. Tragedy struck, however, when Barbi died suddenly of a ruptured Berry aneurysm (1965) and Marguerite later died of lung cancer (1979). At Christmas, 1979, Shelley almost died of a bleeding ulcer in San Francisco. But 14 units of blood and a gastrectomy saved his life. By walking 14 miles/day in the long corridors of Presbyterian Hospital, he was ready for his living room wedding in St. Louis three weeks later to Ellen Dorinda Loeffel, M.D., his secret love of three months ever since they met in Washington, D.C. at the Annual Meeting of the Association of Professors of Dermatology. During a snowy honeymoon on a Missouri farm they had to decide who would give up their department chair. Shelley graciously gave in, enabling EDS to remain on her 60 acre farm in Illinois and be near her parents. They also planned the first book they would write together, Advanced Dermatologic Therapy. After eight months of weekend commuting to Peoria, St. Louis, Philadelphia, or Washington, D.C., Shelley moved to Peoria in August, 1980. Interestingly, his father's family had lived there. In Peoria he had the fun of designing his own private office in a new medical building, but cost over-runs, lack of patients, and an embezzling secretary kept him from making expenses. He spent half-days doing research in electron microscopy at the University of Illinois, Peoria School of Medicine, leading to many publications. He also wrote an extensive monograph on Experimental disease in the skin of man (1983). Meanwhile, living on the farm, he drove the tractor, split wood, planted a rose garden, and even allowed a Doberman Pinscher to sleep under the covers with him. Tommy arrived in February, 1981, just in time to accompany his parents to Japan at age 8 weeks. Here, Shelley was the Dohi Lecturer, traveling to several academic centers and carrying Tommy around like a football. Katharine arrived in April, 1983, in time to move to Toledo, Ohio, where her parents became Professors of Dermatology in the Medicine Department at the Medical College of Ohio. Together, they started the dermatology clinics, pursued clinical research, and wrote three books (Advanced Dermatologic Therapy, Advanced Dermatologic Diagnosis, and A Century of International Dermatological Congresses). Will joined the family in February, 1986, while his mother read proof for Advanced Dermatology Therapy in the hospital. For 5 years (1990-1995) they published a monthly clinical diary, Portrait of a Practice, for the medical journal, Cutis. Shelley received many honors over the years, serving as President of five major American dermatologic organizations: The American Academy of Dermatology, the Society for Investigative Dermatology, the American Dermatologic Association, the American Board of Dermatology, and the Association of Professors of Dermatology. He became an honorary member of many foreign societies and received gold medals from the AAD and SID. He was the only dermatologist ever named as a "Master" of the American College of Physicians. He also received an honorary doctorate degree from Uppsala University at their 500th Anniversary celebration, awarded by The King of Sweden. More recently, he was included in the book, Best Doctors in America. In 1990 he received the Rose Hirschler Award from the Women's Dermatologic Society, whose founding he encouraged in the late 1960's and early 1970's. Since leaving Penn (who said he had "retired"), Shelley has written over 300 scientific papers and eight books, as well as produced three children. As Emeritus Professor after retiring from practice at MCO in 1997 at age 80, he continued to write and publish scientific papers into last year. He is survived by Dorinda, his wife of 29 years; sons, Peter B. (Andrea) of Federal Way, WA, Thomas R. (Mia) of St. Charles, MO, and William L. of Washington, DC, and daughters, Anne Kiselewich (Stephen) Carmel, IN, and Katharine D. of Washington, DC. He is also survived by his three grandchildren. Kristin of Washington, D.C., Lisa of Cincinnatti, OH, and Lindsey of Albany, New York.

Published in The Blade on Feb. 5, 2009
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