UF medical school pioneer dies at 83

Published: Saturday, January 17, 2009 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Friday, January 16, 2009 at 9:18 p.m.

Dr. Joachim S. “Nik” Gravenstein, a longtime University of Florida faculty member, died Friday after a long illness. He was 83.

Gravenstein founded the UF College of Medicine’s department of anesthesiology in 1958.

He was a graduate research professor emeritus at the time of his death.

“He was a huge part of the early medical community,” said Dr. Kayser Enneking, current chair of anesthesiology. “My pop (Dr. William Enneking) was also one of them. They were only a handful, and they were very brave, but they left legacies in medicine that we can all be proud of.”

Dr. Jerome Modell, who served as anesthesiology chairman for 23 years, first met Gravenstein in the mid-1960s and describes him as a pioneer in patient safety in the field.

“He devoted his life to patient safety,” Modell said. “When he started the division of anesthesiology in 1958, the unexplained death rate from anesthesia was 1 in 2,000 patients. Now, it’s 1 in 200,000. Nik didn’t do it alone, but he was the first person to really push it and advocate for safety in anesthesia. I think that is his greatest contribution.”

His research with UF colleagues led to many “firsts” and patents, including the Human Patient Simulator. He was co-founder of the Anesthesia Patient Safety Foundation, advocating for more sophisticated monitoring during anesthesia.

Until recently, Gravenstein was on campus by 7 a.m. most mornings to instruct residents on the Human Patient Simulator, a teaching tool he developed more than a decade ago with UF researchers Sem Lampotang and Michael Good, a former student who is now interim dean of the College of Medicine.

The computerized mannequin, known as Stan, is programmed to simulate real medical problems; it can breathe and die, allowing students to practice tackling medical crises before real lives are at stake.

Gravenstein was the first, and only, member of the anesthesiology department when the teaching hospital, now Shands at the University of Florida, opened 51 years ago.

Born in Berlin in 1925, Gravenstein earned his first medical degree in 1951 in his native Germany. He then enrolled at Harvard Medical School while he completed his residency and completed clinical and research fellowships.

He stayed at UF until 1969, and during that time, several of his eight children were born at Shands UF. His son Ruprecht was the first baby born at the hospital in 1958.

In 1969, Gravenstein left UF for Case Western Reserve University, where he served as a professor and director of anesthesiology until 1979, when Modell recruited him back to the UF College of Medicine.

Two of his sons, Nikolaus and Dietrich, followed him into anesthesiology and are now on the UF faculty.

Enneking said to distinguish the trio, they were affectionately known as “The Classic,” “The Boss” (son Nik, who also served as chairman) and “D.D.” (Dietrich, a neuroanesthesiologist).

According to Enneking, the classic Gravenstein was cool, calm, collected, curious and dedicated to the highest ideals.

“His sons are just like him in that way,” she said. “Smart, competent, compassionate and they see the world with great optimism and interest.”

Good described the senior Gravenstein as an exceptionally gifted human being.

“As a physician, he healed many. As a teacher, he helped students of all ages learn. As a mentor, he helped so many of us develop successful, rewarding and meaningful careers and lives,” Good said.

“Nik Gravenstein leaves the world in a much better place than how he found it. I am so fortunate to have had the opportunity to know and learn from this great man.”

Gravenstein is survived by his wife, Alix; his eight children, Nikolaus Gravenstein, Alix Gravenstein Pastis, Frederike Gravenstein, Dietrich Gravenstein, Stefan Gravenstein, Ruprecht Gravenstein, Constanza Gravenstein Goricki and Katarina Gravenstein Brient; and 16 grandchildren.

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