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Originally published December 17, 2013 at 7:46 PM | Page modified December 18, 2013 at 7:39 PM

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Dr. Robert Van Citters, innovative former dean of UW medicine, dies

Dr. Robert Van Citters, who made significant contributions not just at the University of Washington but to the field of medicine and was once called “one of this country’s most imaginative and productive cardiovascular physiologists,” has died at 87.


Seattle Times staff reporter

As dean of the University of Washington School of Medicine in the 1970s, Robert Van Citters oversaw creation of a groundbreaking program that today educates future physicians in Washington as well as those from four other states.

He was instrumental in establishing the burn and trauma center at Harborview Medical Center and built key connections that remain today between the school and Seattle Children’s, Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center and the VA Medical Center.

Dr. Van Citters made significant contributions not just at the UW but to the field of medicine in general, particularly in cardiovascular research, and was once called “one of this country’s most imaginative and productive cardiovascular physiologists.”

A resident of Edmonds, he died Dec. 7 from heart failure.

He was 87.

For all his accomplishments, the avid fisherman and boater, who stood 6 foot 8 inches tall, was a private, reserved man who asked that there be no public memorial service to celebrate his life: “no fuss,” as one friend put it.

Dr. Van Citters “was a man of grace and vision who cared about people,” said Paul Ramsey, now dean of the UW School of Medicine. “He left a profound legacy for our school, our region and the country.”

Mary Bagby, Dr. Van Citters’ daughter, said she and her three siblings were witnesses to their father’s unfailing dedication to this work — marked by long days that stretched into late nights and research trips that took him to far-flung parts of the world.

But it wasn’t until after he died, she said, that she came to understand the full scope of all that he had done, when she discovered his five-page curriculum vitae in his study listing his many honors and achievements.

“He never talked about those,” Bagby said of her father. “He was quiet about his accomplishments.”

At UW in 1959

Dr. Van Citters was born in Alton, Iowa, in 1926, and served in the U.S. Army from 1943 to 1946 and later in the Air Force Medical Services Corps.

In 1959, after earning his medical degree and completing his residency at the University of Kansas, he moved to the UW as a research fellow.

He was active at the National Institutes of Health, where he served on the artificial-heart evaluation task force beginning in 1967.

He worked with colleagues to develop ultrasound equipment measuring blood flow through the arteries and conducted studies that helped clarify the relationship of physiological responses in animals to those in man.

In 1977, Dr. Van Citters was elected to the National Academy of Sciences’ Institute of Medicine.

Robert Gust, who for 32 years worked alongside Dr. Van Citters until Gust himself retired said his friend excelled not just as teacher, researcher and physician, but also as dean — “a job in which few people actually excel.”

As dean, Dr. Van Citters led the creation of the regionalized medical education program serving students in Washington, Alaska, Montana and Idaho (WAMI). It was a novel concept at the time, designed to train doctors to serve in their home states — particularly areas with chronic physician shortages.

Initially called WAMI, the name was changed to WWAMI when Wyoming joined.

Dr. Van Citters oversaw creation of the medical school’s rural medicine program and its department of family medicine; and from more than a dozen physician groups, he created an integrated faculty practice that serves as a model for other medical schools.

Medical school grew

In the decade he was dean, the medical-school class grew from 75 to 175.

John Kasonic said his friendship with Dr. Van Citters began professionally more than 40 years ago when Kasonic, a consultant, worked closely with the dean on the business end of many of the programs and key affiliations he was forming.

It morphed into a friendship that included lunch every quarter for the past 10 years.

“Those of us who knew Van had really high regard for him. ... His parents lived in their 90s, and I was looking forward to having a few more years with him.”

While his work consumed much of his time, Dr. Van Citters also found time to relax, his daughter said.

He made wine at home and doted on the rhododendrons he planted, “moving up the street and around the corner” when he ran out of space in his own yard, she said.

Sometimes with his wife, Mary Ellen, or at other times with friends, Dr. Van Citters spent hours aboard his 100-year-old boat fishing or simply cruising. When his kids were younger, Bagby said, he’d take them and neighborhood kids out on the boat in shifts. “He was a whole different person out there,” she said.

In addition to his daughter Mary and her husband, Jim, of Edmonds, he’s survived by his daughter Saramary (Ken) Zigler, of San Diego; two sons, David (Cheryl) Van Citters and Robert Van Citters Jr., both of Edmonds; a brother, David, in Oregon; eight grandchildren and three great grand children.

Lornet Turnbull: 206-464-2420 or lturnbull@seattletimes.com. On Twitter @turnbullL.



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