James J. Gerlach

Age 86 Doctor and collector of early American furniture once treated Dwight D. Eisenhower for a cold.

July 14, 2008|By Melissa Harris | Melissa Harris,Sun reporter

Dr. James Johnson Gerlach, an ear doctor and collector of early American furniture, died Thursday, after a short illness, at the Stella Maris nursing home in Timonium. The former Baldwin resident was 86.

Born and raised in Baltimore, he graduated in 1939 from the Gilman School and in 1943 from Colorado College, where he developed a passion for falconry, a form of hunting that involves training birds of prey.

His son Robert E. Gerlach of Greensburg, Pa., who took notes on conversations he had with his father, quoted Dr. Gerlach as saying, "I'm not quite sure why my father decided to send me to Colorado; maybe it was to keep me from becoming more involved with a girl I had met while in high school."

Dr. Gerlach graduated from the University of Maryland Medical School in 1946 and interned at Mercy Hospital before joining the U.S. Army. His first assignment was at the Pentagon, where he was in charge of the ear, nose and throat clinic. He once treated Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower there for a cold, his son said.

The Army transferred him to the Solomon Islands and then Hawaii, where Dr. Gerlach "notoriously" wrote his own orders transferring himself to California, his son said.

After leaving the Army in 1951, Dr. Gerlach specialized in ear surgery at the University of Pennsylvania. He went on to study with Dr. Julius Lempert, a pioneer in ear surgery.

After finishing his education, Dr. Gerlach returned to Baltimore to start his own practice.

"He was very particular and very organized in his practice of medicine," his son said. "He couldn't be hurried. ... He spent a lot of time with his patients, asking them all about their lives. Patients scheduled at the end of the day probably had to wait for hours. ... There was a typewritten note in his reception area that read, 'Since each patient requires individual attention, waiting may be inevitable.'"

Dr. Gerlach's love for furniture and design developed at a young age. He could recall, for instance, the name of the architect who designed the home he grew up in on Underwood Road in Guilford. He could also remember the first piece of furniture his parents bought for it, a "Federalist bordering on Hepplewhite" bow-front chest that he put in his own living room.

"My parents were very patriotic," Mr. Gerlach quoted him as saying. "They never purchased any English furniture."

Dr. Gerlach and his wife's first piece of furniture was a dining room table built in Maine between 1690 and 1710.

"He loved chairs," his son said. "He loved architectural details. His home was almost a complete perfect duplication of one style of Williamsburg home on the exterior and interior ... . Aside from medicine, he spent a lifetime creating the environment around his house."

In addition to his son, he is survived by his wife of 47 years, Elaine Prince Gerlach; another son, James P. Gerlach of Wellington, Fla.; two daughters, Gretchen K. Gerlach of Baltimore and Susanne Roszell of Oakland; and four grandchildren.

A memorial service was held Saturday.


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