Dr. Alvin P. Wenger, 87, surgeon who was a founder of GBMC

June 16, 2005|By Frederick N. Rasmussen | Frederick N. Rasmussen,SUN STAFF

Dr. Alvin P. Wenger, a retired Baltimore ear, nose and throat specialist who was a founder of Greater Baltimore Medical Center, died of heart failure Saturday at his home in Land O Lakes, Fla. The former Towson resident was 87.

Dr. Wenger, who also was a neck and head surgeon, was born in Brownstone, Pa., the son of a Church of the Brethren minister whose Swiss-rooted family had been Lancaster County farmers since immigrating in 1732.

Dr. Wenger was raised in Elizabethtown, Pa., and Ephrata, Pa., graduated from Juniata College in 1939 and earned his medical degree in 1943 from Jefferson Medical College in Philadelphia.

After completing his internship in Philadelphia, he enlisted in the Army and was assigned in 1944 to headquarters of the 20th Armored Division in Europe with the rank of captain.

As a medical unit commander in charge of a mobile armored division field hospital near the front, Dr. Wenger supervised 70 doctors and a staff of 100 enlisted men.

He was one of the first physicians to enter Dachau concentration camp after it was liberated by troops from his and two other divisions April 29, 1945.

They were greeted by the spectacle of 30,000 starving camp inmates and 30 freight cars loaded with bodies.

"He recalled seeing railroad cars of bodies with a leg or arm moving weakly here and there, the gas ovens and prisoners, all men, who were weak, emaciated and many at the point of death," said his wife of 13 years, the former Virginia Roeder, a retired deputy Baltimore schools superintendent and former food and homemaking columnist for The Evening Sun.

After the war, he completed a residency at Lancaster General Hospital and practiced medicine in Elizabethtown for three years.

"His solo general medical practice was quite varied," Mrs. Wenger said. "He had weekly medical clinics in the rural areas, dispensed cough syrup from a barrel, delivered Amish babies on kitchen tables, and often received payment in baskets of sweet corn, tomatoes and other garden produce."

After a 1949 residency in otolaryngology at Johns Hopkins Hospital, he began a private practice in Baltimore from an office on Chase Street.

In 1962, he was appointed chief of staff of the old Presbyterian Eye, Ear, Nose and Throat Charity Hospital, and he played a pivotal role in merging it with the Hospital for the Women of Maryland in Baltimore City. The combined hospitals opened in 1965 as the Greater Baltimore Medical Center.

That year, Dr. Wenger was appointed the hospital's chief of otolaryngology, a position he held until retiring in 1985. During his tenure at GBMC, he was instrumental in designing a single-residency training program that combined Johns Hopkins Hospital and GBMC residency programs in otolaryngology and head and neck surgery.

"He was very interested in surgery and the teaching of it," said Dr. Virginia Kranz, a Baltimore otolaryngologist and former resident. "He also had an incredible interest in his patients and listening to them in order to make a diagnosis. He carefully took in all the nuances of what they had to say."

A year after noted horse auctioneer Milton Jenkins Dance Jr. and his wife, the former Jeanne Gilchrist "Jinny" Vance, donated $400,000 toward establishment of a head and neck cancer treatment center at GBMC, Dr. Wenger founded the Milton J. Dance Jr. Head and Neck Rehabilitation Center with Dr. Robert C. Chambers. He served as the center's first director until retiring in 1994.

"He was an outstanding nasal and sinus surgeon who had a lot of grateful patients," said Dr. John R. Saunders, who succeeded Dr. Wenger as director and is GBMC's chief of staff. "And without him, we wouldn't have had our center."

Dr. Wenger was a founder of the American Rhinologic Society, a frequent contributor to medical journals and lectured widely throughout the United States, Europe and Mexico.

Since 1996, he had lived in Land O Lakes, and enjoyed traveling, especially taking river cruises. He had sailed the Nile, Amazon, Rhine, Moselle, Maas, Danube, Elbe and Oder rivers.

Dr. Wenger also liked golfing and was a former member of the Baltimore Country Club.

His first wife, the former Catherine Gehrett, died in 1992. They were married for 48 years.

Services will be held at 10 a.m. Tuesday in the chapel of the Episcopal Church of the Redeemer, 5603 N. Charles St.

In addition to his wife, Dr. Wenger is survived by a son, Paul Wenger of Laguna Beach, Calif.; a daughter, Suzanne Wenger O'Brien of Towson; a stepson, Edward Roeder of Tampa, Fla.; two stepdaughters, Mimi Roeder Vaughan of Riderwood and Anne Roeder Kern of Edmond, Okla.; two grandchildren; eight step-grandchildren; two great-grandchildren; and five step-great-grandchildren.

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