Biographies of the 6 founding doctors of the Palo Alto Medical Clinic.
- Dr. Russel Van Arsdale Lee
- Dr. Edward Frederick Roth
- Dr. Esther B. Clark
- Dr. Blake C. Wilbur
- Dr. Herbert Lee Niebel
- Dr. Milton Saier
Dr. Russel Van Arsdale Lee
No story of the Palo Alto Medical Clinic can be told without an understanding of the man who is considered its founder: Russel Van Arsdale Lee, M.D. By those who knew him, Dr. Lee is described as "creative," "farsighted," "forceful" and "a great doctor," among other accolades. All say that Dr. Lee had a vision for medicine that was decades ahead of its time – a belief that health care was best provided to the community when doctors from multiple disciplines worked together. More importantly, they add, he had the force of will to bring that vision to life.
Russel Lee was born May 10, 1895, in Spanish Fork, Utah, just south of Salt Lake City. He was the son of a Presbyterian minister who had come west from Illinois hoping, "somewhat naively, to sell Scotch Calvinism to the Mormons," Dr. Lee said. The family had eight children, with three sets of twins (including Russ and his twin brother, Paul). "Father used to say that if he couldn't convert the Mormons, at least he would try to outnumber them," Dr. Lee wrote in his autobiography.
At 16, Dr. Lee enrolled at Stanford as a chemical engineering major. To make ends meet, he waited tables in a Japanese restaurant and washed glassware in a bacteriology laboratory, where he was inspired by Dr. Hans Zinsser, a Stanford bacteriologist. Dr. Lee recalled, "I went to all his classes and asked him how I could become a bacteriologist. He advised me to get an M.D., so I switched to pre-med. Since I was color-blind, I was never suited for chemical engineering anyway."
Dr. Lee attended Stanford Medical School, at the time located in San Francisco. At night, he ran an emergency medical clinic in a shipyard. Technically, he never finished medical school: during his last year, the great influenza epidemic hit San Francisco, and senior students were pressed into full-time duty as doctors. Dr. Lee served as an intern at San Francisco Hospital. "The flu was indescribable. It gave us immeasurably more experience than attending classes ever could have," he said. Mortality rates were so high that on his first day as a doctor, Dr. Lee lost six patients out of 46 treated.
In 1920, Dr. Lee joined the practice of Dr. Harold Hill, an internist, then moved to Palo Alto in 1924. Over the next six decades, he would practice internal medicine, teach at Stanford, direct the Palo Alto Medical Clinic and emerge as a national leader in promoting the concept of medical group practice.
Dr. Lee was known for his strong beliefs. He was outspoken on such controversial topics as overpopulation, which he cited as a reason to legalize abortion, and illegal drug use, which he believed should be treated as a medical, not criminal, problem. In 1936, he wrote a law establishing a statewide bureau to combat the spread of sexually transmitted diseases and used $8,000 in winnings from a high-stakes poker game to lobby the bill through the state legislature.
He considered one of his greatest achievements to be the 1964 creation of Channing House, a Palo Alto retirement residence where health care was provided by Palo Alto Medical Clinic physicians. He also sold 1,500 acres of land to the City of Palo Alto to create Foothills Park.
Dr. Lee and his wife, Dorothy, met at Stanford and were married for 54 years before her death in 1972. They had five children: R. Hewlett, Richard S., Philip R., Peter V.A. and Margo, all of whom became physicians. Dr. Hewlett Lee recalled, "My father was an extraordinarily interesting person, and my mother was quite a character too ... a great musician and an artist and a liberal thinker. The house was always filled with itinerant people staying there, starving musicians mostly."
In 1960, at age 65, Dr. Lee retired from the physician partnership and his role as its leader. But Dr. Lee's latter years were hardly dull. He continued to see many of his patients, wrote two books and several poems, collected rare books and chess sets from around the world, grew grapes and made his own wine. In 1974, the Stanford Alumni Association awarded him the Herbert Hoover Medal for Distinguished Service.
Upon Dr. Lee's death in 1982, his colleague Dr. William Clark remarked, "I was privileged to learn by example much about the art of medicine from a master. … My many close contacts with this man of unbelievable energy, brilliant intellect and far-sighted imagination were always stimulating, at times exasperating and never dull."
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Dr. Edward Frederick Roth
Dr. Roth trained in Boston in general surgery and obstetrics and initially handled most of the Clinic's obstetrics/gynecology work. Later, when more physicians were added, he turned to his first love, orthopedics and sports medicine. Dr. Roth became team physician for Stanford University in the 1930s and continued in that position throughout his career.
In a eulogy written after Dr. Roth's death in 1972, Dr. Russel Lee described him with these words: "Fritz was one of the pillars on which the Palo Alto Clinic was built. He was a robust, lusty, virile ‘throwback' to another age in medicine and became a modern specialist in a specialty clinic. He generated an almost universal love in his patients."
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Dr. Esther B. Clark
Dr. Clark was a Palo Alto native whose interest in medicine grew out of a Palo Alto High School science class. Her teacher encouraged her aspirations to become a doctor. After attending Stanford Medical School in San Francisco and completing her internship at San Francisco City and County Hospital, she returned home to join the Palo Alto Medical Clinic. One of the first women physicians in the country, Dr. Clark was also the first pediatrician located between San Mateo and San Jose. Her practice boomed immediately. During her 45-year career with the Clinic, she established the Children's Health Council, which provides care for disabled children.
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Dr. Blake C. Wilbur
Dr. Wilbur, son of Stanford President Ray Lyman Wilbur, was a graduate of Stanford and Harvard Medical Schools. He trained at the Mayo Clinic and practiced for a year in San Francisco before returning to Palo Alto in 1930. Renowned as a great surgeon, Dr. Wilbur also was known for his work ethic. He typically performed surgery from 7:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m., then saw patients in his office until 9 or 10 p.m.
"His father had been president of Stanford, secretary of the Interior, president of the American Medical Association," said Dr. Philip Lee, son of Clinic founder Dr. Russel Lee. "Blake never did any of that stuff. He just went hunting and fishing and practiced medicine."
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Dr. Herbert Lee Niebel
Dr. Niebel was an Ohio native who graduated from Stanford with a degree in civil engineering. He became an assistant instructor in bacteriology at Stanford. His growing interest in clean air and water led to a decision to enter Stanford Medical School.
After receiving his M.D. degree in 1923, Dr. Niebel entered private practice in Palo Alto, later joining the Clinic as a general practitioner skilled in anesthesiology.
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Dr. Milton Saier
Dr. Saier grew up in Fresno and originally aspired to be a farmer. However, his short stature – he stood just five foot two inches – would have made that job too difficult. So instead, he got a degree in biochemistry from Stanford, then entered Stanford Medical School.
When he joined the Clinic, he was the only allergist between San Jose and San Francisco, and his practice bloomed quickly. He was known for his incredible work ethic and energy level. "Milt would see six or eight or 10 patients in an hour. But none of his patients ever
left him," said Dr. Philip Lee.
Added Dr. Hewlett Lee: "Milt was a person of unbelievable energy. He would hit about 50 to 60 miles an hour at each block in Palo Alto before he came to the intersection and sometimes wouldn't slow down then."
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