Patient care comes first, Dr. Robert E. Wise reminded all during decades as a physician and administrator at Lahey Clinic, including 16 as its chief executive.
“Everything else, teaching and research, is subservient to that,” he told the Globe in 1991, just before he retired.
Simpler to say than to execute, that patient-centered approach defined Dr. Wise and his leadership as he guided the clinic through a historic move in 1980 from its origins in Kenmore Square to an expansive campus and hospital in Burlington.
“He was the soul of the Lahey Clinic,” said Bernard M. Gordon, a founder of Analogic Corp. in Peabody and NeuroLogica Corp. in Danvers, and a former chairman of the clinic’s board. “His major legacy, his position as an icon in Massachusetts medical activity, is that without Bob, the Lahey Clinic would not exist in its major form today.”
Dr. Wise, a radiologist who also served as president of the Radiological Society of North America, died in his sleep in his Westwood home Sunday. He was 94, had spent much of his recent years in Palm Beach, Fla., and had just completed a book recounting the story of the Lahey Clinic.
Encouraged by colleagues to lead the clinic, Dr. Wise faced many hurdles as chief executive when the board decided in the 1970s that it was time to leave Kenmore Square and move to the suburbs.
Some suburban towns did not want to host the Lahey Clinic expansion. Area hospitals did not want a new competitor.
Along with regulatory and business challenges, Dr. Wise oversaw a staff that was initially divided by the prospect of a move.
“It was amazing to watch the staff rally around Bob Wise,” said Dr. John Libertino, a former chief executive of the clinic and currently chairman of its Institute of Urology.
Ultimately, Dr. Wise’s reputation helped make the move possible and then make it happen.
“Everyone in the building knew that Bob Wise only did what was right for the organization,” Libertino said. “It was not about Bob Wise; it was always about the clinic.”
In Kenmore Square, the Lahey Clinic was spread among several buildings and sent its patients to an array of hospitals, but many of its physicians liked being in the thick of Boston’s medical establishment and universities.
“He knew the clinic was better than that and didn’t need Boston to survive,” said Dr. Frank Scholz, a longtime friend who formerly chaired the radiology department and is now director of abdominal imaging. “Boston was holding us back. The different hospitals weren’t allowing the clinic to grow.”
Dr. Wise, colleagues said, did more than just help the clinic expand by moving it to a 40-acre site in Burlington.
“He did a phenomenal job in building the staff,” Libertino said. “He wasn’t just the guy who saved the clinic. He was also the guy who helped grow the clinic. His mission was to make the place great, and that’s what he did.”
Born in Pittsburgh, Robert Edward Wise was the oldest of three children.
As a young child he met Yvonne Burkhard, who is known as Bonnie, “and the two of them never looked at anybody else all these years,” Gordon said.
They married in 1943, when Dr. Wise graduated from medical school.
“He sold his microscope to buy my mother’s engagement ring,” said their son Robert Jr. of Lincoln.
Dr. Wise graduated from the University of Pittsburgh and the University of Maryland School of Medicine.
He served as a lieutenant in the US Navy Medical Corps and was stationed in the Pacific at war’s end for the atomic bomb tests, then became a staff radiologist at Cleveland Clinic.
In 1953, Dr. Frank Lahey, founder of the Lahey Clinic, recruited Dr. Wise.
Through the years, Dr. Wise chaired Lahey Clinic’s radiology department, its board of governors, and the board of trustees. He also chaired the radiology departments of New England Baptist Hospital and the former Brooks Hospital in Brookline.
Among his publications was the much-translated 1962 radiology textbook “Intravenous Cholangiography.” In 1979, the American College of Radiology awarded Dr. Wise its Gold Medal, the organization’s highest honor.
“He had boundless energy and drove others as hard as he drove himself,” said Dr. Eugene Clerkin, a staff endocrinologist and former chairman of medicine at Lahey Clinic. “He always recognized the importance of quality in whatever he did. It wasn’t just finishing a job; it was doing it the right way.”
Dr. Wise was “a terrific leader and a great colleague,” said Dr. Charles Fager, a former chairman of neurosurgery at the clinic.
Though he and Dr. Wise ostensibly both retired, “we never really quit completely on medicine,” Fager said. “It was hard to quit. We both enjoyed it so much.”
After retiring, Dr. Wise was a trustee emeritus and chaired the Robert E. Wise, M.D., Research and Education Institute, which provides funding and resources for clinic initiatives.
At home, Dr. Wise taught his children the same values he espoused at work. “He was honorable,” Robert Jr. said. “There was no in-between, there were no gray areas. There was the right thing to do.”
Once father and son discussed a debate at the clinic over what was an allowable rate of error for the examination of radiology tests.
“He said, ‘Zero is the acceptable error rate,’ ” his son said. “That’s how he ran his department, and that carried over when he ran the clinic.”
In addition to his wife and son, Dr. Wise leaves a daughter, Lynne Wise Smith of New Castle, N.H.; another son, John of Lincoln; a brother, James of Largo, Fla.; and seven grandchildren.
A funeral Mass will be said at 11 a.m. Saturday in St. Paul’s Church in Wellesley.
“He set an example of behavior for everyone,” Gordon said. “I consider Bob Wise to be one of the greatest men I’ve had the pleasure to meet in my life. He made me stronger. He made me classier by association.”
When Dr. Wise’s family asked Gordon to deliver a eulogy, “I said, ‘This is a very easy task. It’s very easy to say many good things about Robert Wise.’ ”
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