Fred Hutchinson clinical investigator Bob Witherspoon retires after nearly four decades of service

Physician-researcher delivers care for 37 years, calls solving complex medical problems his 'greatest joy'
Bob Witherspoon
"My lifelong interest in science and medicine go on even if I'm not actually doing the work," said Dr. Bob Witherspoon. His retirement begins after June 28. Center News file photo

After 37 years, the Clinical Research Division's Dr. Bob Witherspoon is retiring. His many contributions were celebrated at a gathering on June 19 in the Arnold Building.

Witherspoon long held administrative roles as he balanced patient care and research. Most recently, he served for eight years as medical director for the Seattle Cancer Care Alliance Transplant Clinic.

Dr. Joachim Deeg, who has worked with Witherspoon since 1976, said his colleague did an outstanding job as medical director. "His presence always had a calming effect. I don't remember ever seeing Bob angry. He's always cheerful," he said.

Witherspoon received the Clinical Research Division's Al-Johani Award for excellence in patient care in 2002. In presenting that award, Division Director Dr. Fred Appelbaum said, "What distinguishes Bob is how well he works with the entire caregiving team, including our fellows, physicians assistants, nurses and support staff. Providing cutting-edge care for complex, sometimes very ill patients in a research environment is not an easy task, and it takes many individuals, each with his or her own set of skills, to accomplish this. One of Bob's great skills is bringing these individuals together to accomplish the task at hand."

Lifelong interest in medicine

The desire to become a doctor had roots in Witherspoon's childhood. "When I was growing up, I was impressed by my pediatrician, and wanted to be like him. That idea actually stayed with me until later when I was a teenager, and I could start thinking about what I would do for my life," he said.

During his years as a biology major at Wabash College in Crawfordsville, Ind., Witherspoon worked on research projects with a faculty mentor and became a teaching assistant for introductory biology classes. "I thought research and medicine could probably go together pretty well, and maybe academic life would present a chance to be both a practicing physician and a scientific investigator," he said.

Witherspoon attended medical school at Baylor College of Medicine, followed by an internship and residency in the Department of Medicine at the University of Washington. "There was this great program in oncology that was doing clinical research in leukemia, so to me it seemed like a natural fit," Witherspoon said. "Dr. Thomas offered me the chance, and I got interested in recovery of the immune system after allogeneic transplantation. Dr. Rainer Storb gave his strong support and mentorship, and things just kept on after that."

Witherspoon said his life of being a clinician and a clinical investigator has been gratifying. "I have had fantastic opportunities to work with colleagues in all disciplines in this center," said Witherspoon, who was also a professor of medicine at the University of Washington for 21 years. "The greatest joy I have is working together to solve problems in clinical care of patients, make things better for patients through investigational protocols, and try to make our system work better.

"Most of all, explaining the idea behind clinical investigation to patients in understandable terms has been fulfilling. What I will miss the most is the association with colleagues in the daily tackling and solving problems, and in the mutual respect and friendships that have resulted," he said.

Deeg said Witherspoon's mentoring has affected many: "He has been an excellent clinician and teacher who has had a lasting impact on trainees who now practice across the U.S. and abroad." 

Planning 'a good transition to the next chapter'

Witherspoon plans to attend conferences of interest at Fred Hutch during his retirement. "Clinical investigation never really has an end as far as I can tell," he said. "My lifelong interest in science and medicine go on even if I'm not actually doing the work. I really look forward to seeing outcomes emerge from ideas that started some time ago, and see how some of the protocols started recently are turning out."

Still, Witherspoon acknowledges he has plenty to do outside medicine. A French horn player in the Lake Union Civic Orchestra, he greatly enjoys music and performing it. "Rehearsing and performing with groups create that sense of teamwork with colleagues that I have attained in my working life as a physician," he said. "I believe these activities will serve as a good transition to the next chapter."

Witherspoon's last day is June 28.

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