Dr. John William Ashworth Jr., 91, surgeon who tended to Premier Tojo

November 04, 2001|By Lisa Goldberg | Lisa Goldberg,SUN STAFF

Dr. John William Ashworth Jr., a longtime Baltimore surgeon who cared for Japanese Prime Minister Hideki Tojo after a suicide attempt at the end of World War II, died of pneumonia Wednesday at Easton Memorial Hospital. He was 91.

Dr. Ashworth secured a place in military history as the doctor assigned to care for Tojo at the U.S. 43rd Field Hospital in Yokohama, where he was commanding officer, after the former Japanese premier shot himself nine days after his country's surrender to end World War II in September 1945.

Tojo was later tried as a war criminal and convicted. He was executed by hanging in 1948.

But while that incident brought him widespread attention - a photo of Dr. Ashworth standing by the bedside of the ailing premier was sent over the wire services - it was only a small piece of a full life dedicated to medicine and to his roots in the mining towns of southwestern Virginia, his family said.

It was there that he got his start in medicine, riding around as a youth with his sister's husband, Rolfe Hillman, a country doctor. They traveled in a horse and buggy to take care of coal miners.

"I think that's where he got the bug," said his son, John William Ashworth III, the director of Maryland Shock Trauma Center and executive vice president and chief operating officer of University of Maryland Medical Center.

And it was there that Dr. Ashworth returned in the 1970s to take on the role of country doctor after the death of his sister.

"He was, I guess I'd term it, a pioneer at heart," said his son, a resident of St. Michaels.

In between, Dr. Ashworth was a respected general surgeon in Baltimore for more than three decades, serving as chief of surgery for St. Joseph Hospital for 20 years and as the chief physician for the Baltimore police, his son said.

Dr. Ashworth grew up in a mining town near the West Virginia border in a family whose members stressed the importance of education. He graduated from Emory & Henry College in Emory, Va., in 1931 and from the University of Virginia Medical School four years later. He moved to Baltimore for his internship and residency.

He married the former Helen Rider, who survives him, in 1933 after a courtship that started when he was 16 and she was 17, his family said.

After completing his residency at St. Joseph, he set up practice in Baltimore, leaving periodically during times of war - he also served in Germany during the Korean War. While in the area, he continued with the Army Reserve, serving with state Comptroller William Donald Schaefer, among others.

The two remained friends after their service ended, Mr. Schaefer said.

"He was a man who commanded respect," Mr. Schaefer said. "He cared about his men."

In 1972, Dr. Ashworth felt the pull to return to his roots in southwestern Virginia and bought his sister's home, which overlooks the Emory & Henry College campus. He set up an office in his house, serving the people in the area. He also was physician for the college and its athletic programs.

"Those were his roots. He was one of those people who absolutely loved where they grew up," said his daughter, Judy Ashworth-Deringer of Kennedyville.

In Emory, Dr. Ashworth moved two old log cabins onto his property by dismantling them, numbering each log, and then putting the structure together again.

Inside, he placed mementos from his and his wife's past - as well as old furniture, tools and other items he and his wife had collected, his family said.

Dr. Ashworth also enjoyed traveling and gardening and was a Colts fan when the team was in Baltimore.

Last year, Dr. Ashworth and his wife moved back to Maryland and were living in Londonderry near Easton at the time of his death.

Services are scheduled at 2 p.m. today at 2 p.m. at Emory Methodist Church in Emory, Va.

In addition to his wife, son and daughter, Dr. Ashworth is survived by six grandchildren and a great-grandson.

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