Newspaper article Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Pittsburgh, PA)

Gastroenterologist Helped Transform City into Center of Medical Research Died Jan. 13, 2017

Newspaper article Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Pittsburgh, PA)

Gastroenterologist Helped Transform City into Center of Medical Research Died Jan. 13, 2017

Article excerpt

Richard Lawrence Wechsler, who died at age 93 on Jan. 13, helped transform Pittsburgh into a nationally renowned center of medical research. He was also a widely beloved local gastroenterologist -- although he did once risk upsetting his children's digestion for the sake of health awareness.

"One of my strongest memories is when he came home and put two lungs on the dining room table. One was fleshy and red, and the other shriveled and black," recalls filmmaker Carl Kurlander, whose mother was married to Dr. Wechsler for two years after his first wife's death.

"I don't know where he found them," said Mr. Kurlander, who maintained a relationship with Dr. Wechsler long after his mother's divorce. "But his point was, 'This is a smoker's lung.' And none of the kids ever took up smoking."

Born the son of a Squirrel Hill doctor, Dr. Wechsler studied at Harvard and the University of Pittsburgh. Just after finishing medical school, Mr. Kurlander recalled, Dr. Wechsler's father introduced him to Jonas Salk, who later developed the polio vaccine. But Dr. Wechsler turned down a chance to work with Dr. Salk, Mr. Kurlander said, "because he didn't think the research was going anywhere."

Dr. Wechsler was more prescient about another Pittsburgh medical legend: pioneering transplant surgeon Dr. Thomas Starzl, who arrived in Pittsburgh in 1981. A medical journal that Dr. Wechsler edited, the American Journal of Digestive Diseases, published some of Dr. Starzl's early research at a time when organ transplants were highly controversial.

"He was a very important guy," Dr. Starzl said. "If you knew him and he trusted you, you had an outlet. And the publication of that work helped the authors."

Dr. Starzl's research helped establish Pittsburgh's national reputation as a health care juggernaut. Dr. Wechsler's son, Lawrence, called his father "one of the leaders in expanding our horizons here in Pittsburgh. …

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