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William Sunderman, 104; Physician, Scientist Honored as Oldest Worker

March 24, 2003|Myrna Oliver | Times Staff Writer

When he was 99, the good doctor played his 1694 Stradivarius at Carnegie Hall. At 100, he was honored by Congress as the nation's oldest worker.

Even after that, every weekday he continued to don his three-piece suit and bow tie and drive himself to his office at Pennsylvania Hospital in Philadelphia. Arriving at 8 a.m., he would assume his white lab coat and spend the next eight hours editing the Annals of Clinical and Laboratory Science, which he started three decades ago.

He maintained that routine, including practicing the violin an hour every night, until shortly before his death March 9 at the age of 104.

Dr. F. William Sunderman, who died at his home in Philadelphia, was an internist and clinical scientist. When he lacked an answer to a problem, he performed research.

That's how he came to develop the method for measuring glucose in the blood, dubbed the Sunderman sugar tube, and became one of the first doctors to use insulin to revive a person from diabetic coma.

That's how, as a medical director for the Manhattan Project in World War II, he developed an antidote to the toxic nickel carbonyl gas used by workers to make atomic weapons. He tested it first, of course, on himself.

And that's how he discovered why doctors observed a high incidence of lead poisoning in policemen. He simply weighed the bullets at a shooting range and found they were lighter after leaving the gun, concluding that the "lost" lead went into the air and officers' lungs.

So it was only natural that when he lived long enough to be asked the secret of longevity, Sunderman sought the answer scientifically. He tried to draw blood from long-lived giant tortoises on the Galapagos Islands, intending to analyze it for clues. But the effort was unsuccessful.

Sunderman had to fall back on the empirical experience of his own long and accomplished life. Components of longevity, he decided, seemed to be strong parents, a good education, two happy marriages, devoted children, a sense of humor, no tobacco, little alcohol, good diet, music and work. Especially work.

"I want to live," he told the Philadelphia Inquirer in 1998, when he reached the century mark and was asked why he kept working. "I have friends who retire and go down to Florida. They play golf. They end up drinking more liquor. Then they get bored and die. Well, I want to live.

"I am convinced that one of the most important items for longevity is the maintenance of a daily work schedule," he said a year later when honored as the nation's oldest worker. "I have always taken to heart that profound statement of Voltaire: 'How infinitesimal is the importance of anything I can do, but how infinitely important it is that I should do it.' "

Born in Altoona, Pa., the only child of an immigrant German father who owned bakeries and a German American mother who handed him a violin when he was 5 and hoped he would become a preacher, Frederick William Sunderman grew up Lutheran, Republican, conservative, and dedicated to science, learning and music. He graduated from Gettysburg College, where he had a dance band, Sunderman's Jazzarinas, and earned a doctorate in clinical chemistry and a medical degree at the University of Pennsylvania.

Sunderman practiced medicine and did medical research for about eight decades. He taught at nine medical schools; was chief of clinical pathology for the Centers for Disease Control when it was part of the U.S. Public Health Service; systematized clinical testing by laboratories; and was president of the American Society of Clinical Pathologists, a founding governor of the College of American Pathologists and the first president of the Assn. of Clinical Scientists.

He wrote or edited 44 books on clinical chemistry and pathology and about 350 scientific papers. He also wrote books with wider appeal, including "Our Madeira Heritage" in 1979, "Musical Notes of a Physician" in 1982, "Painting with Light" on photography in 1993, and his 641-page autobiography, "A Time to Remember," in 1998.

Sunderman was felled by pulmonary tuberculosis in 1937, but used the year of recuperative time to study photography. Until the end of his life, he would dismiss references to his myriad medical awards, preferring to discuss the award-winning photographs he made during his lecture and research travels to 175 countries.

And there was always the counterbalance of music. To describe how medicine and music fit together, Sunderman was fond of quoting Theodor Billroth, a Viennese surgeon who befriended Johannes Brahms: "Art and science are sisters and imagination is the mother of both."

Sunderman liked to describe himself as a fellow "who just keeps to my work and plays my fiddle."

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