November 8, 2016


SUBJECT:    In Memoriam - Wayne Akeson, MD

The UC San Diego School of Medicine community is deeply saddened by the death of our colleague, mentor and friend, Wayne Akeson, MD, founding chair of the Department of Orthopaedic Surgery. Akeson died at his home in La Jolla in mid-October. He was 88 years old. A memorial will be held at the Faculty Club on Saturday, January 7, 2017 (details forthcoming).

Akeson first joined the School of Medicine faculty in 1970, as chief of the Division of Orthopaedic Surgery and Rehabilitation. In addition to later founding and serving as the first chair of the Department of Orthopaedic Surgery (1991-1996), he was acting chairman and vice chairman of the Department of Surgery (1981-1986) and acting dean of the School of Medicine (1986-1988). More recently, Akeson was Emeritus Professor of Orthopaedic Surgery at UC San Diego and chief of Orthopaedics at the Veterans Affairs San Diego Healthcare System.

“Wayne was a great friend, mentor, teacher, researcher, historical scholar, inspiration, forever contributor to our department and the university, spouse and father — and an overall marvelous person and gentleman,” said Steven Garfin, MD, professor and current chair of the Department of Orthopaedic Surgery at UC San Diego Health. “This is a tremendous loss for UC San Diego and the orthopaedics community as a whole. We all will miss him terribly.”

Akeson appreciated the importance of integrating clinical and basic science research long before the term “translational research” was commonly used. In the early 1970s, soft tissue biomechanics and biochemistry researchers Savio Woo, PhD, and David Amiel, PhD, followed Akeson to UC San Diego, where the multi-disciplinary trio continued to collaborate and publish together for decades. They transformed orthopaedic research by shifting its focus from bone and joint biomechanics on a macro level to molecular, biochemical and mechanical studies of how cartilage, ligaments and tendons grow, degenerate and respond to injury. They also began research on manipulating the responses of these tissues — mechanically, chemically, and later, genetically. While commonplace today, this interdisciplinary approach in one department was almost unheard of at the time.

“What Wayne started in the 1960s is now the basis for a lot of how orthopaedic surgery, and particularly sports medicine and joint preservation surgeries, are done today,” Garfin said.

As a leader, Akeson was instrumental in elevating the profile of orthopaedic surgery at UC San Diego from a division within the medical school to a full-fledged department that encompasses both research and clinical care. Thanks to Akeson, the Department of Orthopaedic Surgery rapidly became one of the most prestigious in the country. Under his guidance, UC San Diego Health was among the first in the region to place artificial joints, perform knee arthroscopy, and focus on improving outcomes for patients who had suffered spine trauma — getting people up, out of bed and back to their daily lives in a way that few did before.

In addition to clinical care and research, Akeson also had a passion for education. In this respect, he leaves behind an unparalleled legacy: over a period of 38 years, he trained more than 130 residents at UC San Diego Health and the Veterans Affairs San Diego Healthcare System. When Garfin was himself a resident training under Akeson, he wanted to take a year off from clinical training to try laboratory research. Not only did Akeson carve out a year for Garfin to explore and expand his career options, he eventually made it a required part of the Orthopaedic Surgery residency program at UC San Diego Health. The department had a long track record of receiving National Institutes of Health training grants for resident research.

After 26 years, Akeson resigned as chair of the Department of Orthopaedic Surgery in 1996. But his accomplishments and leadership to both orthopaedic surgery as a specialty and the department did not end there — he remained a close colleague for more than a decade, while nearby at the Veterans Affairs San Diego Healthcare System. For many years he still taught residents and faculty and ran a productive research lab, writing and receiving national competitive grants into his 80s. He also played a role in developing the Veterans Medical Research Foundation at the Veterans Affairs San Diego Healthcare System.

Akeson and his wife, June, donated a substantial amount of their own money to the Department of Orthopaedic Surgery. And as David Brenner, MD, vice chancellor of Health Sciences and dean of the School of Medicine, was quick to point out, Akeson didn’t donate in order to have a chair or anything named after himself, as many might do — instead, the Akesons’ charitable giving was purely to support resident training and education.

Beyond his dedicated service to UC San Diego, the School of Medicine and his department, Akeson also held leadership positions in a number of professional organizations. He served as president and founding member of the Academic Orthopaedic Society (1993-1994). He was a leader in the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgery, American Board of Orthopaedic Surgery, American Orthopaedic Association, Arthritis Foundation, Association of Bone and Joint Surgeons, Association of Orthopaedic Chairmen, Orthopaedic Research and Education Foundation, Orthopaedic Research Society and several other organizations. He served on many committees for the National Institutes of Health, and was editor and reviewer for a number of academic journals, most notably the Journal of Orthopaedic Research, of which he was a founding co-editor.

Akeson was honored with numerous awards over his career, including the Nicolas Andry Award for Orthopaedic Research in 1965 and the Kappa Delta Award for Orthopaedic Research from the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgery and the Orthopaedic Research Society combined, the highest honor an orthopaedic researcher can receive, in both 1968 and 1987. Akeson also received an honorary doctorate degree from the University of Gothenburg for his important international research and teaching collaborations, an honor of which he was most proud.

Akeson was born May 5, 1928 in Sioux City, Iowa. He served as a corporal in the U.S. Army of Occupation in Japan from 1946 to 1948. He earned his bachelor’s degree from the State University of Iowa and his medical degree from the University of Chicago. He completed his medical internship and residency at the University of Chicago. Before joining the UC San Diego School of Medicine faculty, he began his academic career at the University of North Carolina and the University of

Washington. Akeson is survived by his children, Jeffrey, Mark, Cheri, Gregory, and Tracy, their spouses, and many grandchildren. He was predeceased by his beloved wife, June.

David Brenner, MD
Vice Chancellor, Health Sciences
Dean, School of Medicine

Steven Garfin, MD
Chair, Department of
Orthopaedic Surgery