Alumni Profile

Celebrating Sixty Years: A Profile of Richard Kekuni Blaisdell, MD’48

By Emily Bethea, MSI

Emily Bethea

Emily Bethea

This summer, Dr. Richard Kekuni Blaisdell—Professor Emeritus and Founding Chair of the Department of Medicine at the John A. Burns School of Medicine at the University of Hawai'i—will return to Pritzker to celebrate the 60th reunion of the class of 1948. A look back at Dr. Blaisdell's unique path over the past six decades, from his beginnings at the University of Chicago through his career dedicated to the struggle for the rights of native Hawaiians, reveals an inspiring story that embodies Pritzker's mission to develop "leaders and innovators in science and medicine for the betterment of humanity."

"Medical School is time to find your passion, so that you may spend your life doing something you enjoy."
Dr. Richard Blaisdell

At the end of his internship in 1951, Dr. Blaisdell joined the U.S. Army. He served for four years, first in the hills of Korea as a field artillery battalion surgeon and later as a hospital internist in Japan and as a medical advisory officer in Taiwan where he helped to set up his station's first pathology lab. In 1957, Dr. Blaisdell accepted a two-year post as Chief of Hematology at the U.S. Atomic Bomb Casualty Commission. He worked in Hiroshima and Nagasaki conducting research on anemia, myelodysplaia, and nutropenia to help survivors of the devastating U.S. atomic bombs. Upon returning from Japan, Dr. Blaisdell spent six years as an Assistant Professor of Medicine at the University of Chicago until 1965 when he was appointed the first Chair of the Department of Medicine at the new University of Hawai’i School of Medicine. There, he helped to establish clinical training programs that emphasized cultural sensitivity by "starting early." At the University of Hawai'i, he recalls, students "were wearing their white coats and learning how to interact with patients during the first week of school."

Dr. Richard Blaisdell, MD'48

Dr. Richard Blaisdell, MD’48

Alongside his work at the University of Hawai’i, Dr. Blaisdell struggled for the rights of indigenous Hawaiians. In 1983, he contributed to the first document on the health status of the Kanaka Maoli people, revealing this group's extreme marginalization. His findings led to the institution of the U.S. Congress Native Hawaiian Health Care Improvement Act and the Native Hawaiian Scholarship Program. This passion for human rights comes from injustices witnessed in childhood. Dr. Blaisdell explains, "When I was a boy, the term Kanaka was one of derision." Now he hopes this name will connote its true meaning: Kanaka means "human being" and Maoli means "genuine." To this day, Dr. Blaisdell remains active as a consultant in the Department of Native Hawaiian Health at the University of Hawai'i and continues to work for the elimination of health disparities among the Kanaka Maoli and for the restoration of their nation. When reflecting on his career, Dr. Blaisdell sees the University of Chicago's "extremely supportive and enriching environment" as integral to his personal and professional development. When asked for a few words of advice for those of us just starting out, Dr. Blaisdell replied, "Have fun!" Medical school, he believes, is the time to "find your passion, so that you may spend your life doing something you truly enjoy."