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Robert Kerlan, Sports Doctor, Dies

Medicine: Co-founder of famed clinic had been physician for Dodgers, Rams and Lakers.


Dr. Robert Kerlan, the orthopedic surgeon to some of the nation's greatest athletes and co-founder of the Kerlan-Jobe Orthopedics Clinic for sports medicine, died Sunday. He was 74.

The team physician to the St. Louis Rams and a former physician for the Los Angeles Dodgers, Kerlan died of heart failure at St. Johns Hospital in Santa Monica, his family said. Kerlan had been ill since 1994, when the sports doctor whose own body was racked with debilitating arthritis entered the hospital for his fourth hip replacement and suffered a massive coronary.

At Dodger Stadium on Sunday, flags flew at half-staff and fans and players observed a moment of silence in Kerlan's memory before the team's game against Pittsburgh.

"He always found it so amazing that he was given the credit and admiration of doing something that brought him so much happiness," said Kerlan's daughter, 44-year-old Kim Higgins. "He was so commanding and strong. He was, in his own way, one of the players."

Kerlan graduated from Aitkin High in rural Minnesota at age 16, having earned nine letters in sports.

During his first year at UCLA in 1939, the 6-foot-2 Kerlan lettered in basketball. But he left sports to concentrate on his studies, eventually transferring to USC for the remainder of his college and medical school studies.

In 1944, Kerlan was rejected by the World War II medical corps because an exam revealed a form of rheumatoid arthritis in his spine, shoulders and hips.

After a residency in orthopedics, Kerlan began working with a local minor league baseball team. When the Dodgers arrived in Los Angeles in 1958, he was named the team's physician.

By 1967, Kerlan's reputation as a sports doctor enabled him and his partner, orthopedist Frank Jobe, to add the Lakers, Angels and Kings to their roster of teams. Kerlan also was the doctor for Hollywood Park jockeys.

Although his condition forced him to use crutches on and off by the late 1960s--and permanently from 1977 on--Kerlan told The Times in 1992 that he was determined to maintain the same workload as other doctors.

"I'd get up early and cover patients in hospitals, operate two or three mornings a week and go to the office and see patients until 6 p.m.," Kerlan said. "Then I'd go to one stadium or another."

Eventually, however, Kerlan had to give up surgery because his hip could no longer support him long enough for him to perform an entire operation.

Kerlan's patients included some of the greatest names in sports. He treated Gil Hodges, Duke Snider and other aging Brooklyn athletes who moved with their team to Los Angeles. Lakers' players Elgin Baylor, Jerry West, Wilt Chamberlain and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar became patients. Former Dodger Sandy Koufax was treated by Kerlan, as was former Rams football star Merlin Olsen and jockey Bill Shoemaker.

Players said Kerlan's own pain and physical ailments made them feel he understood their injuries.

A fastidious man who always showed up for appointments on the mark, Kerlan could be impatient with others at times, but he was known for his humor and humility. He objected, for instance, to having his picture taken with the athletes he treated, friends recalled.

With its own team of doctors, graduate orthopedic-surgeon fellows and residents, the Kerlan-Jobe clinic became one of Kerlan's proudest accomplishments. It is considered among the top sports medicine centers in the United States.

"Here I am walking on crutches and it seems like I'm barely able to get around, and someone asks, 'Who are you?' " Kerlan told The Times in 1992. "I say I'm a doctor who takes care of the Rams or whatever team I'm with. Oftentimes, I get a double-take."

Kerlan is survived by his wife, Rachel, two daughters and a son.

Plans for a memorial service were still being formulated, but his family asked that instead of flowers, donations be sent in his name to the USC School of Medicine.

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