Thursday, April 21, 2005

World War II Hero Wheeler Lipes, Performed Surgery on Sub, Dies at 84

Wheeler Lipes, a World War II pharmacist's mate who performed an emergency appendectomy aboard a submarine with makeshift instruments such as bent spoons, has died at 84, two months after receiving belated honors for his feat. Lipes died Sunday after a battle with pancreatic cancer, said his brother-in-law, Chris Doney. Lipes used bent spoons for retractors and alcohol from torpedoes for sterilization in 1942 when he removed the appendix of sailor Darrel Dean Rector aboard the USS Seadragon, 120 feet below the surface of the South China Sea.
Darrel Dean Rector and Wheeler Lipes aboard the USS Seadragon
Lipes, then 22, and an assistant wore sterilized pajamas in place of operating room gowns. Rector was too tall for the makeshift operating table, so Lipes put the patient's feet in the drawer of a cabinet. Lipes stood with his knees bent throughout the two-hour operation because the table was bolted to the floor. Lipes had witnessed several appendectomies before deciding Rector needed surgery. "I always thought he was the guy who had the courage," Lipes said. "I've asked myself, `Would I have gotten up on that table and let someone do the same thing to me?' He was one of the most courageous people I've ever met." Rector, whose swollen appendix had several inches of blackened tissue, was back on duty in 13 days. The emergency procedure was recounted in reporter George Weller's Pulitzer Prize-winning article in the now-defunct Chicago Daily News, and inspired a movie starring Cary Grant and a Navy-produced film titled "The Pharmacist's Mate." But there was also anger over Lipes' actions among physicians from the Navy Medical Corps and talk of a court-martial by the U.S. surgeon general, who was forced to set protocols for appendectomies on submarines. Lipes went without honors until Jan Herman, historian of the Navy Medical Department, began looking into his case. He received the Navy Commendation Medal in February. Lipes retired to North Carolina in 2002 after a long career as a hospital administrator. He will be buried at Arlington National Cemetery.
Wheeler Lipes, shown in this December 2002 file photo in New Bern, N.C., talks about performing surgery on a submarine during World War II. The veteran who performed life-saving procedure has died of cancer, two months after he won belated honors from the Navy for the feat. He died Sunday night, April 17, 2005. and is to be buried at Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia

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