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Former Regent Stewart Wolf Dies

In Memoriam: Stewart Wolf, M.D.: Pioneer of Psychosomatic Medicine and Former Regent

It was with sadness that NLM learned of the death of former Board of Regents member (1965-69) and chair (1967-69) Stewart Wolf, M.D. He was 91. His tenure on the Board of Regents during the latter half of the 1960s coincided with a number of important events in the history of NLM, including the passage of the Medical Library Assistance Act, the introduction of MEDLARS computer searching, and the establishment of both the Lister Hill National Center for Biomedical Communications and the Toxicology and Environmental Health Information Program.

"Stewart Wolf was really one of the pioneers of psychosomatic medicine," noted Paul Rosch, president of the American Institute of Stress, in The Lancet. "His book on stress and hypertension is still considered a classic in the field... He was a marvelous cultured person who was able to bring a broad background in the humanities to his approach to patients and to teaching."

Wolf earned his medical degree in 1938 from the Johns Hopkins University and trained at Cornell-New York Hospital. During World War II, he ran a 1,000-bed hospital in the southwest Pacific. He returned to Cornell after the war and in 1952 was appointed chair of internal medicine at the University of Oklahoma. The following year, Dr. Wolf was hired as Supervisor of Clinical Research at the Oklahoma Medical Research Foundation and named head of the Department of Medicine at the University of Oklahoma.

From 1941-1957, Dr. Wolf studied digestive diseases with the help of a patient, Tom Little, who lived with a hole in his stomach, to compensate for a childhood accident. Wolf was interested in how the mind and body interacted and observed changes in the way Tom's stomach looked with changes in emotion. For a more complete story of this patient, see Young, W. Landon, Oklahoma's Hidden Treasure; a history of the Oklahoma Medical Research Foundation, pp. 61-62. (This work is in the NLM collection.)

In the early 1960s, Dr. Wolf also began studying the people of Roseto, PA, after a physician from that town told him that he hardly ever saw patients with heart attacks who were younger than age 50. That was in stark contrast to neighboring towns, which made Wolf think that there might be something specific about the lifestyle of the town's residents, most of whom were Italian immigrants, that had a beneficial effect on their health. (They were trusting, supportive of one another and seemed to enjoy life, he discovered.) Dr. Wolf was to study the community for decades, and found that over time the rate of myocardial infractions rose, which he attributed to its citizens embracing the prevailing American culture and lifestyle. Dr. Wolf described a "Sisyphus complex" that turned out to have strong parallels to type A personalities and heart disease, an idea which was beginning to be floated at the time.

Dr. Wolf retired from Oklahoma University in 1967, shifting to full-time employment at the Oklahoma Medical Research Foundation until 1978, when he moved to Pennsylvania, to be able to spend more time studying the people of Roseto.

Photo: Dr. Stewart Wolf with his longtime patient, Tom Little,
at the Oklahoma Medical Research Foundation in 1956.

Dr. Wolf at bedside with patient