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James A. Wood ’53

Dr. James Wood was a member of the team that perfected the surgical techniques needed for the artificial heart valve.

Born in Newton, Missouri, he was the youngest child of Alfred and Lulu Wood. When he was nine years old, Jim told his father that he wanted to be a jockey. Alfred remarked that Jim might be better suited to be a doctor, which inspired Jim to pursue medicine. Many lives were changed because of this prescient comment. When he was 12, Jim’s father died, and he moved to Oregon with his mother to live with an older sister. In 1943, with WWII raging, he joined the Marine Corps on his 17th birthday. When his service was complete, he returned to Oregon and graduated from Union High School in Hillsboro. He attended college at Vanport and often spoke of the devastation from the 1948 Vanport flood and its effect on the community.

In 1950, Jim married Joann Thordoson. He transferred to Reed and majored in biology, writing a thesis on accelerated calcification of trichinella spiralis cysts with Prof. Ralph Macy [biology 1942–55]. After Reed, he studied medicine at the University of Oregon Medical School (now OHSU) while Joann supported their growing family.

During his residency there, Jim became interested in cardiac surgery. OHSU surgeon Dr. Albert Starr and engineer Lowell Edwards were developing a radical technique to repair a diseased heart valve by replacing it with a mechanical valve. Jim joined the team and became a significant contributor to the pioneering days of heart valve surgery. Their first successful surgery took place in 1960; the patient survived another 9 years. Meanwhile, Jim and his colleagues refined and perfected the surgical techniques needed for the valve to be successful in human patients.

Jim and Dr. Starr established the open-heart surgery program at St. Vincent’s Hospital in 1964, and subsequently established the Starr-Wood Cardiac Group.

Jim loved his horses and dogs, and enjoyed fishing, hunting, and spending time at his ranch in central Oregon. He was an accomplished polo player, playing well into his 60s. He was a curious, intelligent man who travelled the world sharing his professional knowledge and talent. He lived by his philosophy to “leave the world a better place than you found it.”

Predeceased by Joann, his wife of 60 years, Jim is survived by his four children, Diane Stief, James Wood Jr., Jeff Wood, and Carol Wood.

Appeared in Reed magazine: March 2018

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