Earl H. Wood

Earl H. Wood
January 1, 1912 - March 18, 2009

Earl H. Wood, MD, Ph.D., who served The American Physiological Society as the Society’s 53rd President from 1980-1981 passed away on March 18, 2009, at age 97.

Wood was born Jan. 1, 1912, in the front room of a house on Walnut Streeet in Mankato, Minn., his family eventually moved to a 20-acre farm overlooking the Minnesota River just outside Mankato. His father, William C., who worked in real estate, also acquired a large Victorian lakeside hotel overlooking Lake Washington in Le Sueur County, Minn., where the family spent summers.  On Dec. 20, 1936, he married Ada Catherine Peterson of Big Lake, Minn. A graduate of Macalester College in St. Paul, she helped to put him through medical school. In later years the couple bought a farm along the Zumbro River near Rock Dell, where they hiked and nurtured walnut trees.

Wood attended Macalester College in St. Paul, MN, graduating in 1934.  At that time, he entered the School of Medicine of the University of Minnesota but gave up his medical studies temporarily for training in Maurice Visscher's department, where he received the M.S. degree in 1939. Two years later (1941) he was awarded both the M.D. and the Ph.D. degrees, the latter for research on water and electrolytes of cardiac muscle, especially under the influence of digitalis. He spent 1940-41 at the University of Pennsylvania as an NRC fellow in the Department of Pharmacology, and for the following year he was instructor in pharmacology at Harvard. In 1942 Wood returned to Minnesota, to the Aeromedical Unit of the Mayo Foundation Laboratories, where he progressed steadily in rank in the Mayo Graduate School and then in the Mayo Medical School to become professor of physiology and of medicine in 1951. He officially retired from these positions in 1982.

Wood became an APS member in 1943. He was active at first mainly in the Circulation Group and served as a member of its Steering Committee (1962-1964; chairman, 1963-1964). He received its Carl J. Wiggers Award in 1968. He was elected to APS Council in 1977 and became president elect in 1979. From 1978-1980 he was chairman of the Centennial Celebration Committee, and from 1982 to 1985 he served on the Finance Committee. Responsibilities with FASEB ran very much in parallel with those in the Society; in addition to his year as president of FASEB (1981-1982), he was a member of the Long-Range Planning and Development Fund Committees (1982-1985) and the Public Affairs Committee (1984-1985).

With his colleagues, Wood played a pivotal role in the design of investigations to clarify the problems of sudden pilot blackout related to increased gravitational force caused by dive-bombing and high-speed combat maneuvers. A human centrifuge was installed in the Mayo Medical Sciences building.  Wood often served as a research subject, testing human exposure to G-forces. The anti-G suit, developed with the cooperation of a female undergarment manufacturer, became standard equipment in the Air Force.

Following World War II, Wood organized a laboratory at Mayo for the study of human circulation resulting in the development of an ear oximeter, which could provide immediate readings of oxygen saturation levels in the blood. The instrumentation was sometimes tested on three of his young children. His lab also perfected cardiac catheterization as a diagnostic tool which, using blue and green dye concentrations, led to real-time monitoring of circulation during cardiac surgery. By the 1960s Wood's research and teaching attracted graduate students from Mayo as well as from institutions around the world.

His later interests centered on a high-speed, computer-based X-ray scanning system that would provide three-dimensional views of the moving heart, lungs, and circulation. It was an idea he hatched while watching football instant replays on television. Although the imaging machine, called the "dynamic spatial reconstructor," he developed while head of the Biodynamics Research Unit at Mayo was superceded by other techniques, his early dream of non-invasive, accurate diagnosis has become common practice.

Wood has published over 700 articles and numerous book chapters.  His prolific academic career resulted in countless honors, awards, and distinctions from many professional associations.  Wood’s awards include the Presidential Certificate of Merit from Harry Truman in 1947 for his development of the anti-G suit. He received from Macalester College an honorary degree of D.Sc. in 1950 and a Distinguished Citizen Award in 1974. In 1963 he was given awards by the Aerospace Medicine Association and by Modern Medicine. The American College of Chest Physicians (1974), the Mayo Foundation (1978 and 1984), and the Biomedical Engineering Society (1978) have all honored him with lectureships. He is an honorary member of the Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences (1977) and of the American College of Cardiology (1978). In 1982, he received an honorary degree, doctor of medicine, from the University of Bern, Switzerland, and in the following year he was given both the Humboldt Prize for Senior U.S. Scientists by the government of West Germany and the John Phillips Memorial Award of the American College of Physicians.  In 1995 Wood received the Ray G. Daggs Award for his distinguished long-term service to the science of physiology and, in particular, to the American Physiological Society. His most recent distinction particularly pleased his children: In 2002, former Mayo fellow Peter Osypka, who founded a successful medical instrumentation company based on his work in Wood's lab, dedicated "Earl H. Wood Strasse" in Rheinfelden, Germany.

Wood is survived by four children, Phoebe Wood Busch (Nancy Miller) of Denver, Mark G. (Molly) of Fresno, Calif., Guy H. (Julie Croy) of Corvallis, Ore., and E. Andrew (Krista Coleman) of Rochester; four grandchildren and a great-granddaughter (in utero); a sister-in-law, Helen Nichols Wood of Montrose, Colo.; and numerous nieces and nephews. He was preceded in death by his wife in 2000, and his five siblings.

His legacy will live on in his numerous fundamental contributions to the fields of Physiology, operational Aerospace Medicine, and most importantly through the countless trainees and students that have had the privilege to work with him and get to know him as a world class research, teacher, and wonderful family man and human being.