Lewis William Bluemle Jr., 98, of Bryn Mawr, a physician, scientist, and educator, died Tuesday, Aug. 13, of an infection at his home.
Dr. Bluemle was known as the developer of one of the first artificial kidneys in Philadelphia. Later, he became president of Thomas Jefferson University.
But “Bill,” as he was called, had a humble start in Williamsport, Pa. The son of Lewis William Bluemle Sr. and Ora May Waltz Bluemle, he grew up during the Great Depression. He was a handyman for his father’s real estate business and spent summers working at Bethlehem Steel.
He dreamed of becoming a physician. The dream almost vanished when he realized how much tuition would cost. But hard work, top grades, and leadership of the senior class at Williamsport High School impressed the principal, who recommended him for a college scholarship.
“Bill’s life changed entirely when he was awarded a full scholarship to Johns Hopkins University,” his family said.
He graduated in 1943 and enlisted in the Army, through which he earned a medical degree from Hopkins’ School of Medicine in 1946. After serving an internship and residency at the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania, Dr. Bluemle returned to active duty as assistant director of the hepatic and metabolic unit of the Valley Forge Army Hospital in Phoenixville.
In 1951, he was discharged with the rank of captain and returned to HUP, where he developed one of the early dialysis units in the Philadelphia area.
Backed by a grant from the American Philosophical Society, Dr. Bluemle designed and constructed an artificial kidney. He and a partner patented a dialyzer in 1963.
“In those early years, every hemodialysis was an exciting, unpredictable, and often harrowing adventure for the patient and dialysis team,” he told family.
Fascinated by the potential of biomedical engineering, Dr. Bluemle became a charter member of the American Society for Artificial Organs and a consultant to the National Institutes of Health (NIH).
Later, he designed and directed Penn’s first NIH-supported clinical research center. While there, he met researcher Dolores “Dee” Batdorf. Their mutual interest in science made them an effective team. They married in 1953 and had four children.
Dr. Bluemle then became president of the SUNY Upstate Medical University in Syracuse, N.Y., and then Oregon Health and Science University in Portland. In 1977, he returned to Philadelphia as the second president of Jefferson.
Under his tenure, top professionals flocked to Jefferson and the hospital achieved its status as a Level One Trauma Center. He put key Philadelphia leaders on the board of trustees and tripled Jefferson’s endowment.
Jefferson University President and CEO, Dr. Stephen K. Klasko said: “The ‘Bluemle Era,’ as we call it, is shorthand for a period of explosive growth and excellence that helped pave the way for Jefferson today.
Bill was a real gentleman and was able to build consensus around any significant decision. Even as he was leading Jefferson to new heights, he found time and energy to provide leadership in civic and cultural affairs in Philadelphia. He was an early voice of reason in the difficult debate on access, cost, and quality in the delivery of healthcare—a debate that continues today. "
When he retired in 1990, the university’s new research building was named the Bluemle Life Sciences Building.
In retirement, Dr. Bluemle joined the board of trustees at the Connelly Foundation, where he was senior vice president for the last 27 years. The foundation awards grants to nonprofits.
“Being a part of the foundation’s altruistic mission brought him great fulfillment,” his family said.
He received many honors, including a 1990 doctorate of humane letters from Hopkins, which described him as “one of the leading lights of professional health education in the United States, a craftsman of science and enduring relationships.”
A fierce advocate for nuclear arms control, he was an adviser to the Philadelphia chapter of Physicians for Social Responsibility. He also served as president of the College of Physicians of Philadelphia.
He enjoyed restoring his historic home in Bryn Mawr, where his wife “was definitely the boss,” the family said. They also spent time at the New Jersey Shore. She died in May.
He is survived by a son, Chris; daughters Lauren, Susan, and Amy; six grandchildren; and many nieces and nephews.
A viewing from 6 to 8 p.m. Tuesday, Aug. 20, at the Donohue Funeral Home, 366 W. Lancaster Ave., Wayne, will be followed by a Funeral Mass at noon Wednesday, Aug. 21, at St. Katharine of Siena Church, 104 S. Aberdeen Ave., Wayne. Interment is at Calvary Cemetery, Conshohocken.