W. Gordon Walker, MD, FACP
Dr W. Gordon Walker, a physician, scientist, clinical researcher, public health policy leader, and medical educator died in Baltimore, Maryland, on October 5, 2004, from pulmonary fibrosis. During his 53-year career, Gordon contributed to the world of medicine a better understanding of potassium physiology and the renin-angiotensin-aldosterone system, public policy to make renal replacement therapy available on a universal scale in the United States, and the relationship of hypertension and nutrition to progressive renal failure. He trained numerous physicians to whom he imparted Osler standards of excellence in clinical and academic medicine.
Born and raised in Lena, Louisiana, he was the grandson of a country doctor who practiced in Rapides Parish, Louisiana. His college education was received at Louisiana State University. On returning from the Navy at the end of World War II, he married his sweetheart of many years, Betty Couch of New Orleans, and entered the Tulane University School of Medicine under the GI Bill. With Betty supporting them, he focused on medical school, finishing at the top of his class as a member of Alpha Omega Alpha and being selected as an Osler medical intern at the Johns Hopkins Hospital. Gordon and Betty’s first child, Gordon, Jr. (Rusty), was born during the last year of medical school. ⇓
As an Osler intern, Gordon adopted the principles and Hopkins work ethic of Sir William Osler. Dr Osler defined the concept of an academic physician and the role model of a physician constantly striving to understand the cause and treatment of disease and then applying that new knowledge to prevention and patient care. To be described as having Osler qualities implies that the patient, the work, the research, or the quest for new knowledge is always more important than any personal need. To be “Osler” is considered to be totally committed to the job with a never wavering dedication to the task at hand until the work is completed, the patient is stable, or all questions are answered correctly. Gordon was always Osler.
After his internship, he completed a year of medical residency at Charity Hospital in New Orleans but returned to Hopkins to complete his training in medicine and ultimately became the Osler Resident Physician, or Chief Resident, as it came to be known. Being selected an Osler Chief Resident was the highest honor for a Hopkins house officer. The following year, in 1956, he joined the faculty at the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine as an instructor.
In 1960, he was named the Director of the Johns Hopkins General Clinical Research Center, which was one of the first such centers to be funded by the National Institutes of Health. He did this in addition to being the Director of the Year II medical school pathophysiology course, a frequent attending physician on the Osler medical service, and having an active private practice. During this extremely busy time, Gordon and Betty’s second child, Martha, was born. Throughout the 1960s—a time of rapidly expanding medical knowledge—Gordon taught himself the principles of advanced statistics, clinical trial design, and numerous basic research techniques, including all aspects of radioimmunoassays. In subsequent years, he made seminal contributions to the understanding of the renin-angiotensin-aldosterone system in health and cardiovascular disease, the homeostasis of potassium, and the fundamentals of protein nutrition. Throughout his career, he fostered collaborations with investigators in many scientific and medical fields that produced important new information such as the relationship of systolic blood pressure to cardiovascular and renal disease and the genesis of complications in diabetes mellitus. Gordon was also effective in translating new medical knowledge into practice by demonstrating the effectiveness of kidney transplantation in patients with end stage renal disease and his pioneering role in the development of Medicare guidelines that made renal replacement therapy universally available throughout the United States.
Gordon was responsible for the education of many Hopkins medical students, house officers, and post-doctoral fellows. As chair of the Renal Division, his Fellowship Program trained numerous physicians who went on to become leaders in academic medicine and public health throughout the world. He was responsible for attracting outstanding young physicians from many countries to train at Hopkins. Gordon and Betty immersed themselves in the Hopkins world of medicine. Like Dr Osler, they frequently opened their home to medical students, residents, fellows, and faculty. Their twins, Carla and Marshall, were usually the greeting hosts for those excellent dinner parties.
Throughout his life, Gordon took a keen interest in the careers of his Fellows and their children. His enthusiasm, dedication, and concern for all those who worked with him were unlimited and unqualified. He gave to those around him a life-long enthusiasm for medical research and teaching. His tireless inquisitive mind continually sought to understand everything. He excited those he trained and all who worked with and for him. To him it was never about himself; it was always about the question at hand or the other person.
Dr Walker—an Osler intern, the Osler Resident, a scientist, and an extraordinarily effective clinician—will be missed by many, especially those of us who learned from him the importance of being inquisitive, caring, innovative, and persistent in whatever we do. He will be dearly missed, but he leaves a rich legacy as one of the great educators, mentors, clinicians, scholars, and investigators of his time.