Published June 19, 2014
A memorial service will be held at 3 p.m. June 24 in Slee Concert Hall, North Campus, for Richard V. Lee, internationally renowned professor of medicine and a physician in private practice who died May 7 in his Orchard Park home. He was 75.
“Dick Lee’s dedication as a physician and ambassador for medical education has had a tremendous and lasting impact on our community and on UB’s medical school,” said Michael E. Cain, vice president for health sciences and dean of the School of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences. “He was first and foremost a caring and dedicated physician, here in Western New York and throughout the world.
“He was also an important member of our delegation when we visited China to renew our affiliation agreement with Capital University in Beijing,” Cain said. “I will remember him as someone who used his profession fully and with passion to bring medical care to patients worldwide and to help ensure that our medical students were exposed to a global perspective.”
Lee’s professional life was as varied in disciplinary terms as it was in its geography. A faculty member in the School of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences since 1976, he was passionate about international health and tropical medicine, interests that took him and graduate students on annual medical expeditions to provide care to populations in some of the most remote areas on the planet.
In an interview published in 2000 in the Baylor University Medical Center Proceedings, Lee said of his professional interests: “I still like to think of myself as a diagnostician, an old-fashioned notion that has gone out of style, I think, in internal medicine. I find that to be fun.” He summed up his perspective on medicine: “I think doctoring is quintessential anthropology. We study humankind.”
“Dr. Lee was a wonderfully gifted physician and faculty member,” said Stephen Dunnett, vice provost for international education. “He had the bedside manner of an old country doctor, personally interested and invested in the well-being—in all senses of that term—of his patients and his students. He extended that personal concern to everyone he met,” Dunnett said. “Everyone—friend and stranger—benefited from Dick’s open, personable and helpful manner. He was unfailingly good humored and always ready with hearty laugh of good cheer that put you at ease.
“His gift for being with others was complemented by his superb professional skills as a clinician and his far-ranging intellectual and artistic interests, which made him a highly regarded teacher and author, not to mention an impassioned advocate for the arts in Western New York,” Dunnett said. “An exceptionally cultured yet modest man, Dick wore his learning lightly, but he could discourse insightfully on nearly any subject one could think of. He was a scholar and a gentleman in the very best sense.”
Lee’s primary interests were in international health, the complexities of managing medical complications of pregnancy and the health status of geographically isolated human populations. He maintained an active research program, studying the health of the Rendille tribe of Northern Kenya; the Kayapo, Parakana and Apalai tribes of Brazil; and the Ladakh people of Northwestern Himalaya.
"Dr. Lee was very proud of his Chinese heritage,” said Anne B. Curtis, Charles and Mary Bauer Professor of Medicine at UB. “He was the leader of the international medicine program for the medical school, and through his efforts, generations of students learned cultural sensitivity and traveled around the world. He will be sorely missed by all of us."
His work abroad included medical treks with students and other physicians to remote villages in Kashmir and Ladakh, India, in the 1980s and ’90s, and visits to the Amazon jungle, the Andes and northern Kenya. In addition, he provided health services in Thailand to refugees from Laos and Cambodia. He also consulted for the World Health Organization’s Collaborating Center for Health in Housing, based in Buffalo.
His work with Tibetan refugees in India later led to an acquaintance with the Dalai Lama, and Lee was part of the committee that brought him to UB in 2006. Lee and his wife also established a fund to support Tibetan students and Tibetan studies at UB.
Lee was renowned in the field of obstetric medicine, which concentrates on treatment of disease, infection and complications during pregnancy. In 2007, he received the C.G. Barnes Award from the International Society of Obstetric Medicine in recognition of his outstanding contributions to the field. The North American Society of Obstetric Medicine also established a lecture in Lee’s name to be delivered at its annual meeting.
In addition to his primary appointment in the Department of Medicine, Lee also was a professor in the departments of Pediatrics, and Obstetrics and Gynecology in the School of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences; in the Department of Social and Preventive Medicine in the School of Public Health and Health Professions; and in the Department of Anthropology in the College of Arts and Sciences.
Through his posts at various institutions, Lee has had a major impact on the Western New York community. He was a consultant to the Buffalo Zoo, head of the Department of Medicine at Women and Children’s Hospital of Buffalo, chief of medical service at the Buffalo Veterans Administration Medical Center and medical director of Ecology and Environment. He also was a consulting physician for the Bronx Zoo.
He was a fellow of the Royal Geographical Society in London and the Explorers Club in New York, and a trustee of the Yale-China Association, Nichols School and Buffalo Academy of Medicine, of which he also was president from 1985-96. He served as secretary of the board of trustees of the Yale-China Association and maintained academic interchanges with medical schools in Hong Kong, Changsha (Hunan Province) and Beijing.
Born in Islip, Lee’s paternal grandfather, Li Yan Phou, was one of the first Chinese students to study in the United States, at Yale, where Lee also received degrees in 1960 and 1964. While in college, he was awarded the Ferris Prize in anatomy and the Winternitz Pathology Prize, and maintained a lifelong interest in promoting educational exchanges between the U.S. and China.
Lee held bachelor’s and medical degrees from Yale and did his residency and postdoctoral training at Yale-New Haven Hospital. He worked for the Indian Health Service at the Fort Peck Reservation in eastern Montana and was a professor of medicine at Yale before coming to UB.
A member of the board of directors of the Shaw Festival in Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ont., Lee also was a member of the Great Lakes Interurban Club, the New York Academy of Sciences and the American Medical Association, and a fellow of the American College of Physicians and the Royal Society of Medicine in London.