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Subject: F. William Sunderman, Doctor and Scientist


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died March 9
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Date Posted: March 24, 2003 1:33:23 EDT

F. William Sunderman, a doctor and scientist who lived a remarkable century and beyond making medical advances, playing his Stradivarius violin at Carnegie Hall at 99 and being honored as the nation's oldest worker at 100 died at his home in Philadelphia. He was 104.

Dr. F. William Sunderman, reading his autobiography in 2001, continued working at Pennsylvania Hospital in Philadelphia until a few weeks ago.


Dr. Sunderman worked eight-hour days until a few weeks ago.

He developed a method for measuring glucose in the blood, the Sunderman Sugar Tube, and was one of the first doctors to use insulin to bring a patient out of a diabetic coma. He established quality-control techniques for medical laboratories that ended the wide variation in the results of laboratories doing the same tests.

He taught at several medical schools and founded and edited the journal Annals of Clinical and Laboratory Science. In World War II, he was a medical director for the Manhattan Project, which developed the atomic bomb.

Dr. Sunderman was president of the American Society of Clinical Pathologists and a founding governor of the College of American Pathologists. He also helped organize the Association of Clinical Scientists and was its first president.

Besides writing more than 300 scientific papers and 16 scientific books, he wrote books about his many other interests, including chamber music, travel and photography.

His scientific imagination was suggested by his discovery of a high incidence of lead poisoning among police officers. In his 1988 autobiography, "A Time to Remember," he wrote that he went to the shooting range and found that bullets were lighter after they left the gun. The lost lead had gone into the officers' lungs, Dr. Sunderman concluded.

In the 1930's, he was asked to study the effects of high-voltage electricity. He visited prisoners on death row at a Pennsylvania penitentiary. He took blood samples from their arms before execution and from their hearts afterward.

As medical director of the Manhattan Project, he investigated the effects of nickel carbonyl, a highly toxic gas, and developed an antidote, testing it on himself first.

Frederick William Sunderman was born on Oct. 23, 1898, near Altoona, Pa. His father, a baker, advised him to do three things: go to church each Sunday, buy stock in the Pennsylvania Railroad and vote a straight Republican ticket. The railroad went bankrupt in 1970, but he faithfully did the rest.

Dr. Sunderman saw Halley's comet twice, once in 1910 in Pennsylvania and again 76 years later while doing research in New Zealand.

His mother bought him a violin when he was 5, and as a teenager he earned pocket money by playing at silent movies. By the time he enrolled at Gettysburg College, he had a dance band.

His love affair with music never ended. He collected museum-quality antique instruments and practiced an hour a day on his violin, made in 1694 by Antonio Stradivari, who named it the St. Sebastian.

Dr. Sunderman traveled to Austria and Germany in summers to play with professional musicians. In the 1960's, he discovered lost chamber music manuscripts by Rachmaninoff and Borodin in a Moscow music store.

Dr. Sunderman finally made it to Carnegie Hall in 1998, playing a duet with his son, Dr. F. William Sunderman Jr., in a concert of classical music performed by doctors.

Besides his son, Dr. Sunderman is survived by three grandchildren; and a great granddaughter.

In 1924, Dr. Sunderman married Clara Louise Baily. She died in 1972. Besides their surviving son, they had two other children, Louise, who died at 3, and Joel, who died at 24. In 1980, Dr. Sunderman married Martha Lee Biscoe. She died in 2000.

He received an M.D. and a Ph.D. in chemistry from the University of Pennsylvania and his career began when he was an intern at Pennsylvania Hospital, where it also ended. Until recently, Dr. Sunderman showed up there each weekday to edit the journal he founded.

Among the many stops in between was the Centers for Disease Control. When it was part of the Public Health Service in the 1940's, Dr. Sunderman was chief of clinical pathology.

Dr. Sunderman routinely turned adversity to his advantage. For example, while spending 1937 in a hospital recovering from tuberculosis, he fell in love with photography and later wrote a book about it.

In 1999, Green Thumb Inc., a federal program to train and honor workers, recognized Dr. Sunderman as the nation's oldest worker. At 100, he was also still driving. Accepting the honor, Dr. Sunderman mentioned that he had maintained his sense of balance in life through music.

Because Dr. Sunderman was constantly asked the secret of longevity, he decided to approach the question scientifically.

He tried to draw blood from 600-year-old tortoises in the Galapagos Islands, but was unsuccessful.

Less scientifically, he turned to his experience and reported that a good diet, the absence of stress, an active sex life and daily work seemed to help.

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