John Bonica, authority on pain, anesthesiology

August 21, 1994|By New York Times

Dr. John J. Bonica, an anesthesiologist and leader in the effort to understand pain and cope with it, died Monday at St. Mary's Hospital in Rochester, Minn., where he was being treated at the Mayo Clinic. The resident of Mercer Island, Wash., was 77.

He died of a cerebral hemorrhage, said the University of Washington School of Medicine, where the doctor was a professor and chairman emeritus of the Department of Anesthesiology.

Born in Italy, Dr. Bonica came to this country in 1927 and worked his way through school, graduating from medical school in 1942. He committed himself to the alleviation of pain while tending to the wounded from World War II.

When his wife almost died in childbirth, he took up a pioneering effort against the pain of childbirth, and helped develop epidural anesthesia.

Dr. Bonica was the founder and former director of the groundbreaking Multidisciplinary Pain Center at the University of Washington Medical Center in Seattle. He wrote and edited scores of books and hundreds of articles.

His two-volume "The Management of Pain," published in 1953, was rewritten and republished in 1990. It remains in use by students and doctors around the world in six translations.

Weeks before his death, he finished an update of his equally comprehensive "Principles and Practice of Obstetric and Analgesic Anesthesia," first published in 1967.

Dr. Bonica was born on the island of Filicudi, off Messina, and was brought to New York City at age 10. He was 14 when his father died, and he supported the family by shining shoes, hawking newspapers and selling produce. In high school he became an amateur wrestling champion.

As a wrestler, he turned professional to finance his studies at Long Island University and Marquette University School of Medicine, wrestling at carnivals in the summer and winning several more titles.

After an internship and residency at St. Vincent's Hospital in New York, he was inducted into the Army and sent to Fort Lewis, Wash., where he became chief of anesthesiology at Madigan Army Hospital at age 27.

For three years, he advanced the techniques of regional blocks as a novel form of anesthesia.

His wife, Emma Louise Baldetti Bonica, almost fell victim to complications of ether anesthesia while giving birth to their first child. This prompted him to devise a now routinely administered continuous epidural analgesia that affects the nerves leading to the chest and lower half of the body, numbing the woman's pain without her losing consciousness.

Working at Tacoma General Hospital from 1947 to 1963, he established the first residency training program in anesthesiology in Washington state. He founded the University of Washington's Department of Anesthesiology in 1960 and headed it for 18 years.

He retired as its chairman in 1978 to promote advanced treatments of acute and chronic pain worldwide. The recipient of many honors at home and abroad, he was a founding member and past president of the International Association for the Study of Pain, which now has 6,000 members in 80 countries.

As a result of injuries sustained during his wrestling career, Dr. Bonica himself suffered occasional excruciating pain since the 1970s.

He is survived by three daughters, a son, a sister and four grandchildren.

Emma Bonica, his wife of 52 years, died last month.

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