Dr. Harry C. Bowie, 90, professor at Maryland, longtime surgeon

March 30, 2003|By Frederick N. Rasmussen | Frederick N. Rasmussen,SUN STAFF

Dr. Harry C. Bowie, a noted Baltimore surgeon and longtime professor of surgery at the University of Maryland School of Medicine, died of a stroke Wednesday at Blakehurst Life Care Community in Towson. He was 90 and formerly lived in the Hampton section of Baltimore County.

In a medical career that spanned nearly 50 years, Dr. Bowie earned a reputation not only as a skilled and meticulous surgeon, but also as a humanitarian.

"He was a fine surgeon, an excellent teacher, and a wonderful faculty member at the University of Maryland medical school," said Dr. Theodore E. Woodward, former chairman of the department of medicine at the medical school. "He was the kind of man we always wished for."

Dr. Bowie was born and raised in La Plata, where his father owned and operated a country restaurant and filling station. After graduating from LaPlata High School in 1929, he began his college studies at the University of Maryland, where he earned his bachelor's degree in 1932.

Influenced to pursue a medical career by a physician in his hometown, Dr. Bowie studied medicine at the University of Maryland medical school, from which he graduated in 1936. He also completed a surgical internship and residency at University Hospital.

"He was one of the first of the medical students to get five full years of surgical training," said a son, Harry C. Bowie III of Arnold.

In 1942, Dr. Bowie was commissioned an officer in the Army, and served with the 42nd General Medical Hospital Unit of the University of Maryland Hospital in the Pacific.

After being working as a surgeon in Australia and Luzon, the Philippines, during the war, he was discharged in 1946 with the rank of lieutenant colonel. His decorations included the Bronze Star.

Returning to Baltimore, he resumed his surgical practice in the late 1940s in the Medical Arts Building in the Mount Vernon section of Baltimore, where he shared offices with Dr. Everett S. Diggs, also a surgeon. He also taught surgery, without pay, at the University of Maryland from the late 1940s until 1967.

"He was a gentleman and a scholar," said Dr. Diggs, now retired and living in Towson. "He had no faults and was unflappable in the operating room. He was very knowledgeable, knew what to do, and did it well."

Because of his low-key demeanor and insistence in speaking in a soft voice, Dr. Bowie earned the nickname "Whispering Harry" from his operating room and medical colleagues.

"The one word he said you never wanted to hear in the OR, however, was `Oops,'" said his son.

Dr. Joseph S. McLaughlin, director of the division of cardiothoracic surgery at the University of Maryland Medical Center and a former student of Dr. Bowie's, praised his abilities as a surgeon.

"He was an excellent technical surgeon. He was both meticulous and precise. He was not a fast surgeon. He took his time, did it right, and got great results," he said.

"He was a doctor's surgeon. When they needed a surgeon, they always chose him," said Dr. Henry H. Startzman Jr., a retired Baltimore radiologist, and also a former student.

Dr. Bowie also insisted in performing all postoperative care for his patients, including changing bandages.

His career was also sprinkled with the unusual, including being summoned to help treat Mae West, the film and stage star, who was performing in 1949 at Ford's Theater in Diamond Lil, when she was stricken with an abdominal ailment.

Refusing hospitalization, the star insisted on being treated in her room at the Lord Baltimore Hotel.

A souvenir she gave Dr. Bowie that evening became a memorable keepsake.

"She gave him a picture postcard of her lying nude on a bearskin rug as a present. And he still had it all these years later," his son said, laughing.

Another time, he assisted in his own surgery. After falling and hitting his head, resulting in blood clots and pressure on the brain, he needed an operation to relieve the pressure.

"They had to drill four holes in his head, and rather than taking general anesthesia, he opted for a local. He said he wanted to be awake in order to help the doctors during the operation. After recuperation, he resumed working with no ill effects from the surgery," his son said.

Dr. Bowie never equated treatment with a patient's ability to pay.

"He did lots of pro bono care. When a family came to him in a last-ditch effort to save the life of a male member who was dying, they said they had no money to pay for the surgery. He told them, `I'll take care of him,' and he did," said Dr. McLaughlin.

From the late 1960s until retiring in 1985, Dr. Bowie was assistant chief of surgery at Maryland General Hospital.

In retirement, Dr. Bowie maintained an active interest in medical affairs and enjoyed making grand rounds.

"Medicine was his avocation. He once said, `I don't play golf. I don't travel. I'm a doctor,'" his son said.

However, Dr. Bowie never employed his surgical skills at holiday time.

"When it came to carving the holiday turkey, he left that job to others. It wasn't his favorite thing," Mr. Bowie said.

Dr. Bowie was married in 1940 to the former Helen Kaylor, a dietitian he met at the University of Maryland Hospital. She died in 2000.

He was a communicant of St. David's Episcopal Church.

Services are private.

Dr. Bowie is survived by another son, Dr. John W. Bowie, also a surgeon, of Hunt Valley; a sister, Irene B. Wood of La Plata; and two grandsons. Another son, Brian B. Bowie, died in 1974.

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