Friday, April 30, 2004
Eminent Biomedical Pioneer Most Proud of Family
By Paul Logan
Journal Staff Writer
Dr. Sam White was a pioneer in biomedical research, a nuclear blast expert and one of the founders of Lovelace Medical Center, helping to make it world renowned in research and teaching.
The eminent physician and his famous brother, the late U.S. Supreme Court Justice Byron "Whizzer" White, forged one of 20th-century America's more notable brother combinations.
White died Monday of respiratory complications at Lovelace Medical Center, which he helped establish more than a half century ago. He was 91.
A private service is planned.
White was warm, slightly reserved, exacting, but always encouraging and known for giving others credit, a daughter, Meredith White of New York City, said Thursday.
"Inquisitive and challenging, his mind never stopped," she said. "You knew you had to do your best for him."
Of all his accomplishments, White was probably most proud of his family.
"His parents, his brother, his wife and his children simply family," she said.
His parents, Colorado farmers who ran a lumber yard, didn't graduate from grade school, his daughter said, but they "preached the value of education."
Reared in Wellington, Colo., the White brothers earned full scholarships to the University of Colorado. Both excelled academically and athletically, earning all-conference and All-America honors in football and Phi Beta Kappa keys. "Whizzer" White was a runner-up for the Heisman Trophy in 1937.
Sam became a Rhodes Scholar. His little brother followed him, also as a Rhodes scholar, to Oxford, England.
Many years later, a grade school class wrote Supreme Court members to ask who they most admired, Meredith White said.
"The justices' answers, with lengthy explanations, ranged from John Marshall to Abraham Lincoln to Oliver Wendell Holmes," she said. "Justice White's choice: 'My brother Sam.' ''
She said the justice would often tell friends that his much-celebrated path was made easy because "my older brother cleared the tall trees before me."
And, she said, her father would return the compliments from college friends with, "Wait until you see my younger brother."
Dr. Randy Lovelace II persuaded White to leave the Navy and come to help build a new medical center in Albuquerque in 1947. He became the new director of research.
Later, the Lovelace Clinic was chosen to conduct tests on the 32 original Mercury astronauts, including former Sen. John Glenn, in a grueling process described in Tom Wolfe's "The Right Stuff."
Dr. Don Kilgore, who worked with "Dr. Sam" for 30 years, said his friend organized the team approach to examining and testing the astronauts.
"He was a leader in aviation medicine before the word 'aerospace' medicine was invented," Kilgore said.
"Hundreds of scientists took their inspiration, dedication and leadership from Sam. Fellowship programs people came from all over the world to spend time there. It was one of the things he put together."
White was known for making instruments to treat patients or conduct experiments, his daughter said.
"In his oral history conducted by professor (Jake) Spidle Jr., White recounted how he bought lead from the local junk man 'plumber's lead was too expensive' and fashioned the gear he needed to do isotope scans of the thyroid," his daughter said.
He also blew glass to make thermostats for his lab. When the Smithsonian Institution launched an exhibit coinciding with the 50th anniversary of the atom bomb, the museum asked White to borrow the slide rule-like device he designed to calculate the force of the bomb's shock wave, his daughter said.
For more than 30 years, White spearheaded wide-ranging Lovelace research projects as director of medical education and research.
His work included studies in the field of aging, memory loss, hypothermia, cosmic rays, geology and pollution of the upper atmosphere, his daughter said.
"He looked at everything from 10 different perspectives," she said. "Everything he learned from any specific research, he applied to something else."
When Randy Lovelace and his wife, Mary, were killed in 1965 in a private-plane accident, White became president of Lovelace.
"His legacy was one of scholarship and one of scientific integrity," Kilgore said. "He helped Lovelace become world renowned in terms of research and teaching."
White and his wife, Peggy, were married for 62 years.
Other survivors include a daughter, Sharon White of Washington, D.C., and son, Stephen White of Nocona, Texas.
Byron White died in 2002.
Memorial donations may be made to Lovelace Medical Center Library, attention Linda Morgan Davis, or the UNM Medical Center Library Oral History Project, attention Jake Spidle.
Bonnie Jo Halpin