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June 17, 2010


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Microbe-buster also a prolific author
CHA grad given one of nation’s top medical honors

Chestnut Hill Academy graduate Dick Wenzel may be one of the nation’s top scientists, but his sister, Betsy Marple, insists that “no matter what he has done, he remains such a nice guy who is fortunate and yet, humble.”

This March, Richard P. Wenzel, 70, a 1957 graduate of Chestnut Hill Academy, professor and former chairman of the Department of Internal Medicine at Virginia Commonwealth University’s Medical College, was honored with the Maxwell Finland Award. Dr. Wenzel is one of the nation’s top experts on swine flu.

This award, given annually by the National Foundation for Infectious Diseases, honors a scientist who has made outstanding contributions to the understanding of infectious diseases or public health. It is, according to this year’s grateful recipient, “arguably the top national honor for infectious diseases accomplishments.”

Such recognition comes regularly to Wenzel, who has received awards from the National Institutes of Health, the U.S. Navy and the American College of Physicians, as well as his various home institutions — all in recognition of his work in medicine’s most treacherous danger zone: infectious medicine.

Highly regarded, not only as a researcher and clinician but also as a teacher, Wenzel has trained 50 hospital epidemiologists worldwide. He strives to emulate the many positive role models in his own life. “The best teachers I had in my training were distinguished not by their answers, but by their questions,” he said recently. “They provoked me, challenged my level of comfort with concepts, made me reexamine my assumptions, and they engaged me in that quest. I do my best to be that type of teacher myself.”

Among his earliest role models Wenzel counts CHA’s Percy Wales and Dick Dunham, who, he recalls, “were inspiring teachers, had strong discipline, knew the subject well and had a logical and interesting way of imparting knowledge. Both impressed and influenced me, and both excited me about science in general.” He also cites George Lewis, “the talented and exacting drama teacher who directed theater productions at CHA. He opened our minds to the excitement and power of drama, theater and human expression. I recall talking him into letting me play the role of Shylock in The ‘Merchant of Venice’ and can trace my love of Shakespeare to that winter of 1957.”

But the teacher with the greatest impact on his thinking and later career was Dr. Ken Goodner, chairman of Microbiology at Jefferson Medical College. It was Goodner who gave Wenzel his first “face-to-face” opportunity with an infectious disease when he recommended him for a three-month internship in the Philippines treating cholera patients. That formative experience — in which Wenzel saw and treated an average of 100 patients a day — proved pivotal for the young physician: “It was in Manila when I found complete harmony working with infectious diseases, and … a passion for travel to exotic places,” he reflects in his book entitled “Stalking Microbes.” It was also the experience that forever ingrained in him that you can’t separate the symptoms from the patient — that in the excitement of pursuing and trying to solve “the fascinating biochemical disease processes” that bring a patient to you, you must never lose sight of the human consequences of the disease.

One of the most rewarding aspects of teaching for Wenzel has been the lifelong friendships that developed with former students. “You become close family members and stay in touch with them over decades, sharing both personal and professional challenges and good times.”

Such ongoing relationships often lead to exciting medical opportunities. Last April, one of Wenzel’s former students, now a leading figure in the Mexican Ministry of Health, invited Wenzel to Mexico City when the H1N1 epidemic erupted there. “He asked me to visit the patients and hospitals and comment on the policies and infection control guidelines. I subsequently was invited to Colombia, Brazil, Chile, and Argentina, where I visited the Ministries of Health, spoke with infectious diseases experts and made rounds in ICUs to see the patients. This was a huge experience since the epidemic had not arrived in force in the U.S. at that time.”

Dick Wenzel’s life has been full of exciting encounters with microbes. In 1980, while working at the University of Virginia School of Medicine, he had the opportunity to treat a number of patients who presented with a cluster of symptoms similar to typhus but, unlike typhus, involving severe inflammation of the small blood vessels of the brain. No one at the hospital had ever encountered this set of symptoms before. Could they be looking at a new disease?

Despite exhaustive tests, retests and research, and long-term follow-up examinations of the surviving patients, neither Wenzel’s team nor later researchers were ever able to definitively identify the source of this short-lived typhus-like epidemic. But the fact that his “was not a total triumph in medical discovery” is all right by Wenzel. “The trip was as important as the prize: discovering or attempting to discover is energizing…I will always be grateful for the opportunity I had at UVA to recognize a new syndrome and work with an energized team to describe it.”

So what does a globetrotting microbe hunter do to relax? For one thing, he writes. Wenzel is a prolific author of over 500 publications, including six textbooks, the popular press “Stalking Microbes” and a new medical thriller, “Labyrinth of Terror,” due out very soon. He is also a veteran editor, including the first editor-at-large of the prestigious New England Journal of Medicine. Then there is traveling with his wife (next stop Tanzania), strumming folk songs on his acoustic guitar, playing with his grandchildren, skiing, reading and raising sunflowers. Clearly this man has too much time on his hands.

But one thing stands out among all his varied passions and past-times: a predilection for investigation and discovery. “The quest for discovery is vital,” says Wenzel in “Stalking Microbes.”

“It is life itself.” If that is the case, then this busy microbe-busting CHA grad may just have discovered the fountain of youth.

Deidra Lyngard is the director of public relations for Chestnut Hill Academy. This article is being reprinted, with permission, from the fall/winter issue of CHAnnels, the CHA alumni newsletter…Also, Dick Wenzel’s sister, Betsy Marple, who brought his accomplishments to our attention, said last week in an email, “I passed your note on to my brother. He was tickled about it all and delighted he might be on the front page (of Local Life). Funny! No matter what he has done, he remains such a nice guy who is fortunate and yet, humble.”


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