With the passing of Wilson C. Wilhite, Jr., M.D., on January 2, 2017, the world of anesthesiology lost a legendary clinician, a tireless advocate for medicine and its patients, and a renowned leader with an unimpeachable reputation for honesty and integrity. Dr. Wilhite served as ASA President in 1994, during particularly challenging times for medicine. He was instrumental in helping to successfully guide ASA and the specialty through a period of potentially damaging health care reform attempts by Congress.
Wilson C. Wilhite was born on April 19, 1935, in Birmingham, Alabama, the son of Wilson C. Wilhite, Sr., and Lorraine Gibbs. He graduated from Samford University in Birmingham in 1956 as a member of the ODK, AED and Phi Kappa Phi honor societies. In 1960, he received his M.D. from the Medical College of the University of Alabama, where he was a member of the medical fraternity Phi Chi. An internship at the University of Miami Jackson Memorial Hospital followed.
He volunteered to serve in the U.S. Air Force in 1961 and completed his residency at Wilford Hall U.S. Air Force Medical Center in San Antonio, where he attained the rank of captain. While there, he became Chief of the Operating Room Section of the Department of Surgery, an increasingly accomplished cardiothoracic anesthesiologist and a senior member of White Eagle, a special operations unit. Dr. Wilhite joined the Wilford Medical Center’s Competition Pistol team and was qualified as an expert small arms marksman. He later received the National Defense Service Medal for his duty during the Vietnam conflict.
After five years of Air Force service, he joined the faculty of the University of Alabama School of Medicine as an Assistant Professor of Anesthesiology. In 1966, he joined the medical staff of the Methodist Medical Center in Birmingham as Chairman of the Department of Anesthesiology, ultimately serving as president of the medical staff.
After 22 years in private practice in Birmingham, he returned to academic medicine as Professor of Anesthesiology at the University of Texas School of Medicine and became Executive Director of Operating Room Services at Hermann Hospital in Houston. In a testament to his reputation as a mentor and teacher, he was named Outstanding Professor by the anesthesiology residents of the University of Texas in 1990 and 1991.
In 1991 he was recruited to UCLA, becoming Professor and Vice Chair of the Department of Anesthesiology and Director of the Department of Operative Services for the UCLA Medical Center. He retired from UCLA in 1997 as Professor Emeritus. Dr. Wilhite then returned to the University of Texas as Professor of Anesthesiology, subsequently retiring in 2000. In his final address as ASA President during the October 1994 House of Dele-gates, Dr. Wilhite joked that he “shall end as I begin, claiming to be a Texan, from Alabama, who is proud to be a Californian.”
His ASA service was as diverse and far-ranging as the places he and his family called home throughout the years. He served as President of the Alabama State Society of Anesthesiologists (1980) and was a member of the Board of Directors and Life Member of the Texas Society of Anesthesiologists. He served as chair of the ASA Committee on Finance from 1977-1980 and was a member of numerous other committees, along with liaison to the American Society of Post Anesthesia Nurses, of which he was awarded lifetime honorary membership. He also served for two decades as a Delegate from the U.S. to the World Congress of Anaesthesiologists.
Much of Dr. Wilhite’s term as ASA President took place during a difficult period for medicine as Congress attempted comprehensive reform that often pitted economists and bureau-crats against the physician community. On October 26, 1993, one week after becoming ASA President, Dr. Wilhite was asked to offer testimony on health care system reform to the Health Subcommittee of the House Ways and Means Committee.
“Wilson was a true and loving friend. He enriched the lives of those he touched. I will miss him, as will so many. He was an inspiration to young and old. He loved his God and looked forward to being with the angels and those in his family.”
– Peter L. McDermott, M.D.1993 ASA President
Throughout his term, he advocated fiercely for the specialty and spurred involvement from the anesthesiology community. His principles always guided him. In 1994 he wrote, “Had the first to administer anesthesia been faint of heart, surgery might have remained a primitive and painful experience. Medicine now is able to accomplish the near-miracle in cures, and politics must not be allowed to compromise or obstruct that heavenly commissioned calling. May we always be bold enough to adhere to our commitment to principle.” As we all know now, the Health Security Act of 1993 failed in the Senate in September 1994.
Dr. Wilhite was especially proud of his ancestral heritage, being a 13th generation American. He was a descendent of the Motts, who settled Virginia in the early 1600s, and a descendant of the Wilhoits of the 1717 Germanna Colony of Culpepper, Virginia. In retirement, he maintained a passion for genealogy, giving talks and writing articles about his ancestors.
Dr. Wilhite was president of the General Galvez Chapter of the Sons of the American Revolution in 2014, a charter/life member of the Sons and Daughters of Virginia Founding Fathers, and was a life member of the Sons of Confederate Veterans, Ft. Blakely Camp 1864, where he was Camp Surgeon. He was also a life member of the Military Order of Stars and Bars (MOS&B), where he was Chapter Surgeon and 1st Lt Commander of Alabama MOS&B, and a life member of the Order of the Founders of North America and the Society of the War of 1812.
It was the wish of Dr. Wilhite’s family to recognize the friendship and personal compassionate medical care of Dr. Richard Rosenthal.
Dr. Wilhite is survived by Patricia Sewell Wilhite, his loving wife of 59 years, his loving and caring daughter, Tiffany Patrice Wilhite of Birmingham, son-in-laws Dr. Larry Grissomand Sam Renta, and a brother, Fred Wilhite.