Jewell L. Osterholm, as seen in his official portrait at Jefferson Medical College.
Courtesy of the family
Jewell L. Osterholm, as seen in his official portrait at Jefferson Medical College.

Dr. Jewell L. Osterholm, 88,  of West Brandywine Township, a surgeon, research scientist, and respected mentor whose influence helped catapult Thomas Jefferson University's department of neurological surgery into national prominence, died Friday, Oct. 20, of liver disease at Paoli Hospital.

Jewell L. Osterholm
Courtesy of the family
Jewell L. Osterholm

Dr. Osterholm came to Philadelphia in 1963, fresh from postgraduate neurology training at McGill University in Montreal. He joined the neurology division at Hahnemann Medical College, where, in 1967, he was named surgical director.

In 1974, Dr. Osterholm moved to Jefferson as chair of the neurosurgery department. He took with him deep skills as an administrator, plus a burgeoning research program and large surgical practice, according to a 50-year remembrance on the Jefferson Medical College's website.

By 1980, the department was performing 1,300 operations a year. Two years later, Dr. Osterholm enhanced the training of young doctors by creating a process whereby patients were admitted under the supervision of both the neurosurgery and neurology departments.

The net effect was "wider sharing of neurology patients and a broader diagnostic workup," Jefferson College said in its half-century retrospective.

One of Dr. Osterholm's major achievements was creation of the Regional Spinal Cord Injury Center of Delaware Valley, a collaboration among the college's departments of rehabilitation medicine, neurosurgery, and orthopedic surgery. In this context, he stood out as an expert on spinal cord injury.

"Today, the center, now affiliated with Magee Rehabilitation Hospital, is one of only 14 in the country to hold the federal government's highest designation," in ranking clinical outcomes, Jefferson said in its online tribute.

But by the late 1970s, his research emphasis shifted to the study of stroke and measures physicians could take to relieve the effects of insufficient blood flow to the brain and the reduced ability of brain tissue to use oxygen. Both may be present in a stroke patient.

In June 1983, Dr. Osterholm announced that he had developed a way to reverse stroke damage in mammals, under laboratory conditions, through a spinal perfusion of an oxygen-rich mixture, if done within three hours of the stroke. The methodology progressed through early-phase clinical trials in humans, but foundered before the FDA.

Over the course of his long career, Dr. Osterholm was granted 75 patents. In 1984, he was honored as "Inventor of the Year" by the Intellectual Property Owners Association, a trade group for patent holders.

In 2010, Dr. Osterholm's colleagues at Jefferson established the neurosurgery department's first endowed chair in his name.

In making the announcement, Dr. Robert H. Rosenwasser, its first occupant, said: "It is my honor to be the recipient of this professorship named after such a high-caliber physician, who established the excellent clinical and research reputation that Jefferson's Department of Neurological Surgery is known for.

"Dr. Osterholm created a distinguished legacy during his career here, as not only an outstanding physician dedicated to his patients, but also as a world-renowned researcher, inventor and educator. He is a friend and mentor to me, and I am delighted to be able to follow in his footsteps."

Jewell L. Osterholm demonstrating a medical technique.
Courtesy of the family
Jewell L. Osterholm demonstrating a medical technique.

Born in White Sulphur Springs, Mont., Dr. Osterholm was the son of the John W. and Lauretta G. Osterholm. A child of the Great Depression, he grew up poor and never graduated from high school. As a young man in the Army, though, he was found to be bright, and he set his sights on a medical career.

He earned a medical degree from Washington University School of Medicine in 1957, fully intending to become a cardiothoracic surgeon. But during the last rotation of his final year in medical school, he rotated through the neurosurgery department.

He instantly saw the appeal of neurosurgery and went on to the Montreal Neurologic Institute at McGill, where he did graduate training in neuropathology, neurology, and neurosurgery.

Throughout his 20-year tenure at Jefferson, he was known to patients as an empathetic physician and master diagnostician. Medical residents knew him as a gifted and caring mentor who liked to perform a neurological examination on a resident himself to demonstrate how it should be done.

"Training residents is a full-time effort," he told family. "But it is more than rewarded by their enthusiasm and dedication." Training young neurosurgeons, he said, was the "highest intellectual and moral challenge and the best work I could do."

Jewell L. Osterholm
Courtesy of the family
Jewell L. Osterholm

When not engaged in medicine, Dr. Osterholm loved sailing the Atlantic Ocean or on the Chesapeake Bay. He did many things well, said his son, Jay, and "always liked to debate."

"He made friends with everybody," his son said. "He was just a kind man."

Dr. Osterholm was married to Anne Howard Osterholm, whom he met while studying in Montreal. The couple lived in Radnor before moving to West Brandywine Township.

Besides his wife and son, Dr. Osterholm is survived by a daughter, Kristine H. Vaccarella, and a granddaughter.

A funeral will be at 2 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 28, at St. David's Episcopal Church, 763 S. Valley Forge, Wayne, followed by interment in the churchyard.

Memorial contributions may be made to the Paralyzed Veterans of America, 5000 Wissahickon Ave., Philadelphia, Pa. 19144 or via www.pva.org.