William J. Baker, MD, FACS (1915-1993): A Rural Surgeon



We are currently embroiled in a health care crisis, characterized by the need for malpractice reform, pressures of the 80-hour work week regulations on resident education, and a decreasing interest in pursuing a career in surgery. As we face these difficult problems, we should reflect upon one of the aspects that makes surgery a great profession – namely, devotion to our patients and our craft. As we look forward to the future, I would like to share my personal reminiscences of a rural surgeon from the 20th century who affected my personal development and growth as a general and trauma surgeon.

Dr. William J. Baker

My father, William J. Baker, M.D., was the first surgeon I ever knew. His effects on me (both as a parent and as a mentor) have been profound and long lasting. Born in Cambridge, Mass., Bill Baker attended Cambridge Latin, Harvard College (BS, 1936), Tufts University (MS in psychology, 1937), and Harvard Medical School (MD, 1941). He then worked as an intern at the Massachusetts General Hospital, where he met Jean “Pinky” Houghton who was working as a scrub nurse for Dr. Robert Linton. Pinky and Bill were married in Hawaii just before he joined the Navy in 1942. He was assigned to a Marine infantry assault division in the Philippines, where he was honored with a Purple Heart and the Silver Star.

>After the war, Dr. Baker returned to Boston where he trained under Dr. Richard Warren at the West Roxbury VA. In 1950 he and Pinky moved to the small town of Laconia in central New Hampshire; he was the first board-certified general surgeon in the State of New Hampshire outside of Dartmouth (which is, after all, almost in Vermont). He performed the first thoracic operation at the Laconia Hospital and brought a high standard of surgical care to the Lakes Region. At the end of his career, he served as Chief of Surgery at the Brockton VA from 1981 to 1985, allowing him to go back to his roots as a Visiting Attending at the West Roxbury VA.

Although Bill Baker did not pursue a career in academic surgery, he made major contributions to surgical care in New Hampshire. He was a charter member of the Northeast Medical Association (NEMA), founded in 1957, which was devoted to improving the care of injured skiers. I remember attending the second meeting at Stowe, Vt., in 1958 (at the age of 10). We both enjoyed our participation in the National Ski Patrol Association, and we were both very proud when I was able to join him as a member of the NEMA in 1984. As a strong advocate for prevention in the area of trauma, Bill Baker spearheaded efforts that led to legislation for the mandatory use of seatbelts and motorcycle helmets in New Hampshire. In the field of breast cancer, he developed an informal but well-organized group of breast cancer survivors (whom he lovingly called his “bosom buddies”). These ladies connected to women who had recently undergone mastectomy for breast cancer. This initiative preceded the Reach to Recovery program that was later sponsored by the American Cancer Society.

As a parent, Bill Baker taught me many things. As a rural surgeon, he evinced a dedication to excellent patient care, a legacy of life-long learning, and a strong commitment to community service and the prevention of injury. He served as President of the New Hampshire Chapter of the American College of Surgeons and was an active member of the New England Surgical Society. As a father, he was a great role model, who taught me the satisfaction that a career in rural general surgery could provide. As the quintessential rural surgeon, Bill Baker made multiple contributions to his community and his adopted state of New Hampshire. His death at the age of 78 was mourned by his family, friends, and the many patients whose lives he had affected as a surgeon, combined with his special mixture of a personal touch and compassion.

Dr. William Baker practiced general surgery from 1950 to 1985, in what some have called “the golden age of medicine.” What insights can be learned from his story for today’s rural surgeon? Rural surgeons today still work in hospitals with fewer resources and lateral support systems than are typically available in larger, urban hospitals. Although these conditions create problems, they mean that the rural surgeon can enjoy closer relationships with patients, nursing staff, colleagues in other specialties, and administrators. And rural surgeons can become influential community leaders and strong advocates for change and improvements in systems of care. The impact of activism is all the greater in rural communities because of the unique role of rural surgeons in the community.

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