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P&S Journal

P&S Journal: Winter 1998, Vol.18, No.1
Alumni News and Notes

A Physician's Family Salutes His Beloved Calling

By Peter Wortsman

Medicine and P&S have meant a great deal to Robert M. Sonneborn'36 as far back as he can remember. Inspired at an early age to become a doctor, in part through the example of a beloved family physician, Francis J. Lemoyne Hupp (P&S Class of 1889), he persevered and had the good fortune to learn the ropes of clinical practice from the legendary Robert Loeb. He still considers his time at medical school "the happiest years of my life." Now, 61 years later, he and his family have come full circle with the establishment of the Robert M. Sonneborn'36 Professorship in Medicine at P&S, where it all began.

"Medicine has always been Bob's first love," says his wife, Hortense, happy to share the medical life. "It was our daughter Ann who had the idea of establishing a lasting link between her father, his school, and his calling. The family opted for a charitable remainder trust, a life income agreement whereby the Sonneborns would benefit from financial security and Dr. Sonneborn could take pride and pleasure in a chair that bears his name.

Trained at Mount Sinai and Presbyterian hospitals and at Hopemont Sanitarium in his native West Virginia, Dr. Sonneborn served as a young Navy doctor, weathering the attack at Pearl Harbor. He was cited for meritorious duty and promoted to the rank of commander. After the war, he moved back to Wheeling, where he built a busy private practice, specializing in cardiopulmonary care. A fellow and former governor for West Virginia of the American College of Cardiology and former president of the Wheeling Heart Association, also active in hospital affairs, Dr. Sonneborn was, above all, devoted to his patients.

To a man for whom medicine means so much and practice is the ultimate joy, it came as a terrible blow when, in 1963 at age 51, he suffered a myocardial infarct and was diagnosed with an arteriovenous fistula. Despite successful surgery, he was forced to dissolve his practice. With sober irony he recalls that in his third year at P&S, Dr. Loeb invited him and other students elected to AOA to deliver papers on heart disease; the subject he picked was congestive heart failure.

Having written for the West Virginia Medical Association Journal and contributed to a textbook on clinical radiology and on his wife's urging, Dr. Sonneborn made the most of his experience as physician turned patient, writing and publishing "If Your Husband Has Coronary Heart Disease" in 1968. The book combines keen self-observation ("Unlike a lay person unfamiliar with the course of heart disease, I knew every twist and turn in the road . . . ), sound advice (Remember, the doctor is a scientist, not a prophet . . . "), and practical philosophy (Enjoy to the best of your ability each hour and day that remain, fully realizing that such an attitude is the only one . . . In truth, you will help yourself as well as your family and, of greater importance, be an inspiration to others.)

Inspired by his daughter Ann and also with the support of his daughter Barbara and her family, the Sonneborns have banded together, applying that wisdom to the greater good through the Robert M. Sonneborn'36 Professorship, helping to perpetuate the medicine he learned and practiced.

copyright ©, Columbia-Presbyterian Medical Center

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