Dr. James W. West stood on the cutting edge of medicine in the middle of the 20th century and recognized “it sounded bizarre to remove an organ from a dead person and expect it to work.”
He was part of a team of surgeons who helped change that perception when they performed an early transplant, using a kidney from a cadaver, in 1950 at a Chicago-area hospital. The successful operation galvanized public interest and is credited with influencing surgeons around the world to attempt organ transplants.
Open about being a recovering alcoholic physician, West pioneered substance-abuse programs in Illinois and in 1982 was named founding medical director of the Betty Ford Center in Rancho Mirage, now the most prominent center for treatment of chemical dependencies. He had been sober since the late 1950s.
“He was every bit as important as Mrs. Ford,” John Schwarzlose, the center’s chief executive, told The Times. “There wouldn’t have been a Betty Ford Center without her courage, but Jim was that veteran physician who knew just what to do. He was a true leader, and we were lucky to have him.”
West, 98, died July 24 at his Palm Desert home of complications related to old age, his son Bill said.
West served as the center’s medical director until 1989, when he became physician director of the outpatient program, a position he held until he retired in 2007 at 93.
“In Dr. West, I’ve found a healer, a teacher, and a friend,” the former first lady wrote in the preface to “The Betty Ford Center Book of Answers,” a 1997 West project.
Since the center opened Oct. 4, 1982, West had insisted that it was important for physicians to serve as active members of the treatment team.
“This little bit of insight has prompted Dr. West to develop models of assessment and detoxification that have been duplicated around the world,” wrote Ford, who had also been open about her personal battles with prescription drug addiction and alcohol. She died in July 2011.
Dennis Gilhousen, president of the National Assn. of Addiction Treatment Providers, called West “a pioneer in the world of addiction treatment in the truest sense of that word. He championed new ideas and a new attitude about providing quality treatment that endures to this day.”
The organization gives out the James W. West Quality Improvement Award in his honor.
When West received a reported $100,000 advance for the “Book of Answers,” he donated it and his profits from book sales to a Betty Ford Center fund that benefits patients who need help paying for treatment.
The book grew out of a question-and-answer column called “Sober Days” that he had long written for the Desert Sun newspaper in Palm Springs. His final column ran July 26.
James Ward West was born March 29, 1914, in Chicago, the eldest of four children. His father worked in ticket booths at theater and sports venues.
As a high school sophomore at a Jesuit boarding school in Wisconsin, West decided to become a doctor after hearing an inspirational speech at a retreat.
After earning a medical degree from Loyola University Chicago, he practiced surgery from 1942 to 1981 and taught his specialty at his alma mater.
While in medical school, he had been introduced to amphetamines by a fellow student and was addicted to alcohol, West told the Tulsa World in 1997.
“My abuse was not flagrant. It was more periodic,” he said in the article. “But I recognized it as a problem.”
He sought help, which led him to study psychiatry and substance abuse disorders and to teach psychiatry at the University of Chicago and at what is now Rush Medical College. He helped found the Chicago rehabilitation program Haymarket Center and an Illinois medical society program to help physicians struggling with substance abuse and other problems.
On June 17, 1950, West was a surgeon at Little Company of Mary Hospital in a Chicago suburb when he removed a kidney from a woman who had just died and Dr. Richard Lawler transplanted it into Ruth Tucker, a 49-year-old woman with a genetic kidney disease.
“It was very controversial,” West told the Catholic New World newspaper in 2004. “We had many doctors who supported it, but many were against it. The clergy in particular opposed this procedure.... It was like, once it was dead, it should stay dead.”
Although the transplanted kidney failed after several months, it served as a temporary bridge, enabling Tucker’s other remaining kidney to begin functioning properly again. She lived five more years.
Within days of the operation, the national press was reporting that the transplant was “the first of its kind,” but it was one of a small number of such pioneering procedures. A 1954 Boston case involving twin brothers is widely recognized as the first successful kidney transplant. The procedure is now relatively commonplace, with more than 66,000 performed in 2005, according to the World Health Organization.
Fellow surgeon Lawler served as godfather to Bill, one of six children West had with his wife, Shirley. They had been married 58 years when she died at 81 in 1997.
Late in life, West continued to study the four-string banjo, which he played at Little Company of Mary as a member of an all-physician Dixieland jazz band called the Emergency Room All Stars.
He is survived by his second wife, Maureen, whom he married in 1998; his six children; two stepdaughters; nine grandchildren; four great-grandchildren; and a sister.
A memorial service will be held at 12:30 p.m. Aug. 25 at Sacred Heart Church, 43775 Deep Canyon Road, Palm Desert.