In Memoriam: Walter Charles Lobitz Jr., M.D. 1911-2006: A life well lived

Walter C. Lobitz Jr., M.D.Published in Arch Dermatol 2006;142:1495-6.
Reprinted with permission.

On April 17, 2006 we lost a true giant of dermatology. On that day Walter C. Lobitz Jr., M.D., Chairman Emeritus of the Department of Dermatology, Oregon Health & Science University died in Portland, Ore. at the age of 94. During his lifetime he saw dermatology evolve into a scientifically based specialty and he was a major contributor to the evolution.

Dr. Lobitz's enthusiasm and passion were contagious and obvious in all he did, whether he was working in his lab, teaching medical students, caring for patients, fishing, skiing, or mountaineering. He was a wine enthusiast; a gourmet cook; a musician and composer of music; and even a world-class watercolor artist. His watercolors are displayed in the homes of dermatologist friends all over the world and on the walls in the hallways at Mary's Woods, his residence in Oregon for the last several years of his life. He was a humble man who, despite his many talents, insisted on being called "Wally." Those of us who trained with him could never quite accept such informality in addressing a person we so profoundly admired.

Walter C. Lobitz Jr., was born and educated in Cincinnati, Ohio. During a residency year in internal medicine there he met a young intern, Caroline Elizabeth Rockwell, the woman he fell in love with and married. She died in 2001. They had been married for 59 years. "Betty and Wally" Lobitz lived according to the creed: "If I had but one loaf of bread, I would sell half to buy white hyacinths to feed my soul." They wrote poetry and music for each other. Their three children, Charles Lobitz, John Lobitz and Suzy Carroll carry on the tradition of their parents and share their philosophy of life.

Shortly after starting medical school Dr. Lobitz developed generalized morphea, an event which profoundly influenced his life decisions. Dr. Leon Goldman at the University of Cincinnati made the diagnosis, managed his disease, and became his friend and mentor. Dr. Lobitz's experience with morphea and his relationship with Dr. Goldman were the major reasons he chose a career in dermatology. Years later he would still roll up his sleeves to show medical students the atrophic scars left on his body by his encounter with this rare skin disease.

Dr. Lobitz accepted a fellowship in dermatology at the Mayo Clinic in 1942. He remembered his chief of dermatology there, Dr. Paul O'Leary, as a great man who inspired him and started him on the path to a career of leadership in dermatology. After his fellowship, Dr. Lobitz moved to Hanover, New Hampshire to start his own dermatology program at the Hitchcock Clinic and Dartmouth Medical School. While in Hanover he continued his investigation of eccrine sweat gland biology and forged fast friendships with Walter B. Shelley, William Montagna, and Richard Dobson. His work with Bill Montagna, a biologist and basic scientist, heralded a new era of scientific inquiry in skin diseases; true investigative dermatology. Montagna and Lobitz organized the Brown Conference at Providence, Rhode Island which brought together basic scientists and clinical dermatologists for in-depth discussions focused on different aspects of skin biology each year. This conference became the "Green Conference" when it moved to Oregon in the early 1960s and endures today as the Montagna Symposium on the Biology of the Skin, which takes place each fall on the Oregon coast. Dr. Lobitz spoke at the most recent Montagna Symposium in October 2005 and was looking forward to attending the Symposium in 2006, which will focus on adnexal structures.

In 1959 Dr. Lobitz succeeded Thomas B. Fitzpatrick as Chairman of the Department of Dermatology at the University of Oregon Medical School, now Oregon Health & Science University. Under his leadership the dermatology department in Oregon rose to national prominence. He remained Chairman until his retirement in 1977. Early on Dr. Lobitz recruited one of his first residents at Dartmouth, Richard Dobson, to Oregon. There they continued their investigations into sweat gland biology and cutaneous carcinogenesis. Later Dr. Lobitz's landmark discoveries on cellular immunity in atopic dermatitis inspired such current leaders in the field as Jon Hanifin and Kevin Cooper.

As Dr. Lobitz's international stature grew he traveled throughout the world as lecturer and visiting professor. During two sabbaticals in Denmark he collaborated with and developed a lasting friendship with Dr. Gustav Asboe-Hansen. Another lifelong friend, Dr. Yusho Miura, Professor Emeritus of Dermatology and Dean Emeritus of Hokkaido University School of Medicine, was the first of many Japanese dermatologists who came to Oregon as research fellows and later become chairman of dermatology departments in Japan. In 1993 the Emperor of Japan awarded Dr. Lobitz the Order of Sacred Treasure, Gold Rays with Neck Ribbon for his contributions to Japanese dermatology.

During his career Walter C. Lobitz was the president of every major national dermatology organization: the Society for Investigative Dermatology (1957-1958), the American Board of Dermatology (1963), the American Academy of Dermatology (1969) and the American Dermatological Association (1972). He was a founding member of the Association of University Professors of Dermatology and its president in 1965-1966. He was chief editor of Archives of Dermatology from 1963 to 1969. He was a trustee of the Board of the Dermatology Foundation and received the Foundation's Lifetime Career Educator award in 2003.

In the late 1960s Dr. Lobitz helped shape the future of dermatology by his contribution to the publication of the "National Program for Dermatology," a document which outlined the direction dermatology should take with regard to education and patient care. That document provided the foundation for the modern structure of the American Academy of Dermatology. Dr. Lobitz was named Master in Dermatology of the Academy in 1988 and was awarded the Academy's highest honor, The Gold Medal, in 1985 by Richard Dobson, then President of the Academy.

Dr. Lobitz's most enduring legacy may be in those he taught and nurtured. He was a skilled mentor of young dermatologists and was very proud of his "dermatology children." He personally made sure that doors were opened and the way made smooth. He was directly responsible for training a remarkable number of dermatologists who went on to become national and international leaders. His trainees include three Presidents of the American Board of Dermatology, two Secretary Treasurers, three Vice Presidents, one President, and one President-elect of the American Academy of Dermatology, one recipient of the American Academy of Dermatology Gold Medal, one recipient of the Dermatology Foundation Clark B. Finnerud Award and two Masters in Dermatology.

Dr. Lobitz often quoted Ernest Martin Hopkins, 11th president of Dartmouth College, who said, "The final measure of a man's accomplishment … is not whether he has been acclaimed a hero, or has been adjudged a worthy candidate for martyrdom. It is rather his success in acting as a coordinating, harmonizing, energizing, stimulating force …."

Walter C. Lobitz Jr., was a master at coordinating, harmonizing, energizing and stimulating those he taught, worked with and loved. He lives on in the Oregon Department of Dermatology to which he gave his heart and soul and in the many lives he touched.