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Published on August 13, 2018

Martin Smith, MD, retired physician, researcher and leader is remembered

Martin Smith, MD

On Sunday, July 29, Martin Smith, MD, age 84, passed away at his home in La Crosse. Dr. Smith was a pioneer in patient care, medical research and medical education at Gundersen. For all his accomplishments over his 33-year career at Gundersen, in 2017 Dr. Smith received the Founders Award in Medical Leadership—Gundersen Medical Foundation's highest honor for an individual.

Dr. Smith was born in Brooklyn, N.Y. He received in medical degree in 1959 from the College of Physicians and Surgeons, Columbia University. His postdoctoral training included clinical and research fellowships at Massachusetts General Hospital and Harvard College. He was a medical officer in the U.S. Naval Reserve, retiring as a captain in 1981.

Dr. Smith joined the Gundersen Clinic staff in Internal Medicine and Hematology in 1966.

According to William Agger, MD, director of Medical Research who worked and trained with Dr. Smith, "He was a quiet, warm, thoughtful, organized doctor with a keen intellect. Dr. Smith joined Gundersen at a time of tremendous growth and transition into a strong academic institution. Gundersen was also way ahead in medical human research thanks to Dr. Smith."

Through research, Dr. Smith was instrumental in establishing the epidemiology of La Crosse encephalitis—a mosquito-borne virus that most often affects children. His efforts to clean up mosquito habitats led to a significant decline in the disease.

While Dr. Smith believed that patient care was his number one priority, he recognized the importance of research as well. "Good research leads to better patient care. It's also important for a successful medical education program. Cutting-edge research not only advances medicine, it also entices good physicians to come here," said Dr. Smith in a 2017 interview.

When Dr. Smith arrived at Gundersen in 1966, he helped establish the area's first hematology specialty practice as well as a dedicated hematology lab. Dr. Smith remained the director of the Hematology Laboratory through his tenure at Gundersen. This lab laid the foundation for Gundersen's current world-class research program which includes Oncology/Hematology, Microbiology and Rheumatology Labs, plus clinical trials and much more.

When it came to his work, Dr. Smith never let obstacles stand in his way. In 1975, when he was appointed director of Medical Research, there were reservations because Dr. Smith was not a board-certified pathologist. To prove he was the right person for the job, Dr. Smith sat for, and was awarded, board certification in clinical pathology and later in immunopathology.

He retired in 1999. During his 33 years at Gundersen, Dr. Smith served many roles including chairman for the departments of Internal Medicine and Laboratory Medicine. He also served with Western Wisconsin Technical Institute and the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse. He helped establish Gundersen's Summer Research Fellowship Program to train the next generation of healthcare professionals. Even in retirement, he continued to give his generous philanthropic support to Gundersen Medical Foundation.

The La Crosse community, generations of patients, the field of medical research and countless physicians he mentored owe Dr. Smith a debt of gratitude. While Dr. Smith will be missed, his legacy will live on.

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