Friday, October 26, 2007

Coffey crash


While immoderate quantities of caffeine downed quickly might cause a coffee crash, that's not the sort of thing under discussion today.

Yesterday, I had occasion to look through the Biographical File of one John Vidalis Straumfjord, M.D., past president of the North Pacific Society of Internal Medicine and founder of the Astoria Clinic in Astoria, OR. A 1929 graduate of the University of Oregon Medical School, Straumfjord gained national recognition in the 1940s for his research on Vitamin A. All in all, a very interesting character; but the thing that struck me most when reading through an obituary notice about him was that he was a survivor of the 1933 plane crash that killed Robert C. Coffey, M.D., another important figure in Pacific Northwest medicine. Straumfjord had been working as an internist at the Coffey Clinic since 1930, and was on the plane with Coffey when the accident occurred.

In Elizabeth Winegar Molina's book, Doctor Gritman's hospital: from horse and buggy to helipad, we get a brief biography of Coffey, co-founder with Charles L. Gritman, M.D., of the hospital in Moscow, Idaho. Born in North Carolina in 1869, Coffey relocated to Idaho with his family in 1888. Exhibiting a wanderlust which was somewhat atypical for his time, Coffey headed back east to Kentucky to get his medical degree; he graduated in the 1892 class of the Kentucky School of Medicine at Louisville. After five years in practice with Gritman back in Idaho, Coffey moved again -- this time to Colfax, WA. He was there only three years before relocating to Portland in 1900. A vignette from Molina's work offers some clues to his peripatetic ways:
Moving to Portland, Oregon, in 1900, he continued his experimental work on dogs. Employing an assistant, anesthetist, and artist, he worked three days a week in a laboratory he had outfitted with a complete set of instruments and sterilizer. An out-of-town doctor, allowed to use the lab while Coffey was lecturing in Europe, disregarded instructions to the contrary, and published his work in a local newspaper. The Humane Society sprung into action and closed the lab; but Coffey quietly continued his experiments in the basement of the Medical School.
We have a lot of evidence which seems to show a high tolerance for "innovation" in the early years of the Medical School here, and I suspect that Coffey's retreat to the basement was just another instance of UOMS giving shelter to what it saw as a "creative mind." Perhaps that support system contributed to Coffey's settling; he practiced here in Portland for the next 33 years of his life.

Coffey went on to establish the Coffey Clinic in Portland, and to pioneer several abdominal surgical techniques. Molina reports that "Dr. W.J. Mayo of the Rochester Clinic rated Dr. Coffey 'one of the six great surgeons of his time.'"

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