SCCM Mourns the Loss of Founding Member Dr. Shoemaker

2016 - 2 April - SCCM’s Quality Improvement Initiatives
This article celebrates the life of William C. Shoemaker, MD, MCCM.

The critical care community lost one of its great visionaries and founders with the passing of William C. Shoemaker, MD, MCCM, at age 93.

Together with his wife, Norma, the Shoemakers were instrumental in founding the Society of Critical Care Medicine (SCCM), helping to start the organization from the ground up. 

Dr. Shoemaker was a key voice in the effort to have critical care considered a specialized area of medicine, and was a staunch believer that optimal critical care should be delivered by a multidisciplinary team. He served as the third SCCM president, from 1973 to 1974.

Dr. Shoemaker, Peter Safar, MD, MCCM, and Max Harry Weil, MD, PhD, MCCM, are credited with founding the Society and with being the fathers of critical care medicine. In 1968, at a Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology meeting in Atlantic City, New Jersey, USA, these young pioneers met and went for a walk along the boardwalk, recalled Ake Grenvik, MD, PhD, MCCM. They shared the vision of a multidisciplinary team working together in a focused setting to provide the best possible care for critically ill and injured patients, leaving with the idea to form SCCM.

One of Dr. Shoemaker’s most impressive undertakings was serving as the first editor of Critical Care Medicine. In 1972, with a subscription base of only 100 SCCM members, he was instrumental in working with a publisher to found the journal and solicit articles for the then bimonthly publication. He remained editor until 1991, by which time the journal was published monthly and was one of the most well-respected resources in the field.

“Getting the journal was all Will. He lived for the journal,” remembered Dr. Grenvik. “Will was fantastic about going after the possibility of a journal. It was considered impossible at the time to start a medical journal with such a young subspecialty and a membership of only 100 people. Will managed to find a publisher. I don’t think anyone else would have been able to do it,” he said. 

“Although there are a number of true pioneers in the field of multidisciplinary critical care medicine, none had more impact than Will Shoemaker,” said Joseph E. Parrillo, MD, MCCM, former editor-in-chief of the journal. “A review of the early volumes of Critical Care Medicine demonstrates the participation of all four disciplines -- anesthesiology, internal medicine, pediatrics, and surgery -- in the authorship of the original articles.” Later, disciplines such as nursing, pharmacy, neurological sciences, and others were added.
“Multiple disciplines represented in one journal was a revolutionary concept,” continued Dr. Parrillo. “Other journals were invariably devoted only to one discipline or specialty. Will’s devotion to making the journal a great repository of multidisciplinary scientific and clinical studies represents one of the most important contributions -- one that subsequently evolved into the development of the multidisciplinary critical care team as we know it today.”
In a parting message to Dr. Shoemaker as he was retiring as editor of the journal, Head of the Editorial Affairs Division Robert Demling, MD, noted, “Will…will never be absent from the journal, just as an artist lives on in his masterpiece. This is the sort of immortality that all of us strive for, but few achieve.”

Indeed, Dr. Shoemaker’s legacy lives on in the journal in the many relationships he made and young professionals he inspired.

Edward Abraham, MD, professor and dean at Wake Forest School of Medicine in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, USA, stayed in touch with the man who served as his first fellowship supervisor. “There was a group of us who were trainees who got together regularly. We visited him in LA about six years ago. It was a special event, just to honor him. When news circulated among the group about Dr. Shoemaker’s death, the e-mail subject line read, “Sad News About Our Research Family Father.”

“My relationship with him was tremendously meaningful. I was able to have a career in critical care even before it was a recognized specialty. I would not be here today in my professional life without him. And I think we all felt that way. And we all knew he cared about us in a very special way.”

During his renowned medical career, Dr. Shoemaker was a distinguished surgeon, critical care physician, researcher and teacher. His passion was to treat and help the underserved. He practiced in Chicago at Michael Reese Hospital and Cook County Hospital, where he instituted and directed the Trauma Service; at the Mount Sinai School of Medicine and Elmhurst Hospital in New York City; as professor of surgery at UCLA at Los Angeles County Harbor/UCLA Medical Center in Torrance and Charles R. Drew University in Los Angeles; and as research professor of surgery at the USC Medical School in Los Angeles.

By the 1960s, Shoemaker had already established himself internationally as a leading force in the field of multidisciplinary critical care. He was a major contributor to advancements in the science of critical illness, including clinical research into hemodynamic abnormalities, from mechanism of injury to an organized approach to treatment. He researched the pathophysiology of trauma and the patient’s response to optimal treatment, initially trying to establish normal physiology in the hope of better outcomes. He was frequently invited to lecture internationally, and mentored numerous medical students from around the world.

“My first vivid memory of Dr. Shoemaker was at an American College of Critical Care Medicine Convocation,” remembered SCCM President Todd Dorman, MD, FCCM. “His presentation started with a story that I still retell to students and very junior faculty. Dr. Shoemaker said that when he graduated medical school, the speaker told the class, ‘Now that penicillin has been made available, there is nothing new to be done in medicine.’” He told the graduates that they had missed the glory days of medicine. Dr. Shoemaker was adamant that the speaker was wrong. Dr. Shoemaker believed that medicine recreated itself about every decade and that the glory days were always in front of us. I must admit, I believe Dr. Shoemaker was right.”

“One of the most important things we all learned from him was that it was okay to be innovative, to explore novel ideas and go on your own path,” remembered Dr. Abraham.

Today, the robust state of critical care and of the Society is due in large part to the trailblazing efforts of Dr. Shoemaker and his wife. He will be missed dearly by his friends, colleagues and family. He is survived by his wife, Norma; sons Stephen (Denise), Frank (Susan) and Thomas (Johann); and grandchildren Michael, Liam, Amy, William, Sarah and Kaine. He was preceded in death by his son Robert (Gail). He is also survived by his brother, John, and many nieces, nephews and extended family.