"Celebrating Unsung Heroes of the Clinic and the Lab"

Dedication and Naming of Joseph E. Walther Hall
School of Medicine, IUPUI
October 8, 2009

Introduction: An Era of Dramatic Change

In 1907, Indiana University President William Lowe Bryan spoke to the first graduates of the IU School of Medicine. He said, “What the chemists and pathologists know today, what the surgeons can do today—these things no sane man could have dreamed possible a quarter of a century ago.” 1

We can say exactly the same thing today, over a century later, as we dedicate and name the university’s latest magnificent medical research facility in honor of Joseph E. Walther.

The World of Basic and Clinical Research

At the heart of the rapid changes within the world of medicine has been basic and clinical research performed in American universities and universities elsewhere in the world. Indiana University has long been at the heart of this type of research. To give just a few examples, back in 1931, Dr. Rolla Harger developed the “Drunkometer,” the first portable and practical machine to test blood alcohol content. In 1962, Dr. Harvey Feigenbaum pioneered the use of cardiac ultrasound, known as echocardiography. In the 1970s, Dr. Clem McDonald established an electronic medical records database that has since changed the world of diagnostic medicine.

And IU has grown to be a national leader in cancer research. Dr. Darron Brown’s curiosity about infectious disease led him toward collaborative work with colleagues—including Doctors Kenneth Fife and Ann Roman—to help develop a vaccine that will prevent most cervical cancer. Dr. George Sledge is working with Doctors Kathy Miller, Robert Hickey, Linda Malkas, David Flockhart, and Constantin Yiannoutsos to improve the treatment of women with breast cancer by individualizing it according to genetic makeup. And Dr. Larry Einhorn’s revolutionary approach to treating testicular cancer transformed the diagnosis from nearly 100% fatal to nearly 100% curable.

The great talent concentrated in so many areas at the IU School of Medicine has saved the lives of countless thousands of patients.

An Historic Foundation

These achievements have been built upon a strong and historic foundation. At the time of its establishment in 1903, the IU School of Medicine was only the fourth such school in the United States to require two or more years of collegiate work for admission. Since that time, it has grown to include nine medical education centers across the state and has graduated over sixteen thousand students.

It was fifty years ago this year in 1939 that the Medical Sciences Building (now Van Nuys Medical Science Building) was dedicated. Just a few years after Watson and Crick discovered the structure of DNA, in the shadow of the discovery of the miracle drug penicillin, this facility substantially expanded and modernized the then research infrastructure of the school and heralded the age of modern medical research at Indiana University. Incidentally, only a few years prior Jim Watson had earned his doctorate in Zoology at Indiana University in Bloomington.

Today, as we name and dedicate this new building in honor of a great son of Indiana and a hero to Indiana University, we reaffirm the university’s commitment to life-saving scientific discoveries. This is precisely what Joseph Walther would have wanted.

Joseph E. Walther: Personal History

Joe Walther was a second-generation IU-trained physician. His father earned a degree from the IU School of Medicine in 1912, he earned his M.D. in 1936, and his daughter Mary Ann Margolis earned her M.D. from IU in 1970. Indiana University and medicine are great traditions in his family. 2

Every story about Joe Walther reflects his determination, resourcefulness, and dedication to improving the lives of others. As a boy, he traveled with his father on house calls, helping to drive the car. He was so young, he couldn’t reach the brake on his father’s Model T, so he had to remind his father to hit the brakes when they turned corners. Even from that early age, Joe knew how to solve problems and knew that he would be a doctor.

After he completed his medical training, he travelled to Hawaii where he became the medical director of a hospital at the age of 25. He also served as chief physician to 7,000 sugar and pineapple plantation workers. During his time practicing medicine in Hawaii, many of his patients spoke only Japanese. What did Dr. Walther do? He learned Japanese. He later served as an interpreter during the Second World War.

His gallantry and heroism in the field of battle during the war earned him the Silver Star in the Battle of Midway, the Bronze Star at Iwo Jima, and the Air Medal for flying over fifteen combat missions. Following his decorated military service, he continued his medical career in Indianapolis specializing in gastroenterology. He served on the medical staff of Wishard, Methodist, St. Francis, St. Vincent, and Winona Hospitals, the last of which he established in response to a desperate shortage of hospital beds in Indianapolis. In 1948, he established Memorial Clinic of Indianapolis and that same year he joined the faculty of the IU School of Medicine.

After his wife died of colon cancer, Dr. Walther sold Winona Hospital, retired from practice, and dedicated himself to the fight against cancer. To that end, he established the Walther Cancer Institute, which has become the Walther Cancer Foundation. This foundation has made a tremendous difference at the IU School of Medicine, and it currently supports the Mary Margaret Walther Program for Cancer Care Research and the Hoosier Oncology Group, a non-profit association of 400 cancer physicians, researchers, and nurses in the Midwest. That longtime support also continues in the Walther Scholars Program, funded by a generous $5.3 million grant from the foundation, which will ultimately support five scholars. All told, the Walther Cancer Institute then Foundation has contributed approximately $50 million over the last four decades to support cancer programs at the IU School of Medicine, and we are deeply grateful for that support.

For his remarkable achievements and service to Indiana University, the community of Indianapolis, and beyond, Dr. Walther was named a Distinguished Alumnus of the IU School of Medicine, received the Distinguished Alumni Service Award and the A.F. Clevenger Award, and was designated a living legend by the Indiana Historical Society. In 1997, IU awarded him an honorary Doctor of Science.

The Significance of Naming

Today, we are paying further tribute to Dr. Joseph E. Walther as we name the latest addition to the School of Medicine’s state of the art research facilities in his honor. When we think about places like the IU Simon Cancer Center, the Gatch Clinical Building, and the John D. Van Nuys Medical Science Building—and now Walther Hall—we remember and honor the people who have—in different ways—left an indelible mark on this university and touched the lives of students, faculty, staff, and visitors.

The researchers and physicians in Walther Hall are doing more than touch lives: they are saving them. At 254,000 gross square feet, this impressive hall is the largest of the school’s new research facilities. It connects existing research buildings to create an integrated biomedical complex that encourages collaborative research. Well over a hundred laboratories provide space for over 300 scientists and physicians, many of whom are dedicated to cancer research. Just one project already underway is a study of ways in which proton beam radiation can more effectively treat hard to reach head and neck tumors, a study that extends our existing expertise in proton beam therapies. This is the sort of complex and far-reaching research taking place right now within these walls.

Testimony to Leadership

None of this would have been possible without the energy, focus, and drive of a number of people. First, I would also like to acknowledge dean of the IU School of Medicine Craig Brater, who has been one of the staunchest and most effective advocates for the School of Medicine during his tenure. I would also like to recognize Ora Pescovitz for her leadership on this and other projects during her time with the IU School of Medicine. Her grace under pressure, her extraordinary energy, and her good humor, helped her guide Indiana University and the IU School of Medicine towards our goals in our efforts to transform this state’s life sciences economy, and we are grateful she could join us today to celebrate and deliver her keynote address in just a moment. Finally, I would like to recognize Chancellor Charles Bantz for his vigorous and steady leadership of the IUPUI campus and his support for the health and life sciences.

Along with these university leaders and countless other people who made this project a reality, we honor Joseph E. Walther. In honoring him, we also honor his firm belief that the most difficult problems in our world can eventually be solved. We honor his resourcefulness, his dedication to others, and his strong leadership. And we honor his family, many of whom were able to join us here this morning. Would you join me in thanking them for their longtime friendship with Indiana University?


At the 1938 dedication of the Clinical Building here in Indianapolis, IU’s legendary 11th president Herman B Wells said, “We come together today to dedicate an efficient medical building. But we have a greater purpose: that of dedicating ourselves to the work ahead of us which this building will make possible. The unsung heroes whose courage over the operating table, whose skilled care of the ailing, and whose careful research in the laboratory will advance the health and knowledge of humanity . . . .” 3

Today as we dedicate this building, we celebrate those unsung heroes. But we also celebrate the patients and families whose hope rests on the shoulders of our talented scientists and our remarkable physicians. We celebrate the staff members without whose support our work would not be possible. And we celebrate people like Joseph Walther whose vision, care, and generosity make such a difference in the lives of people they will never know.

Thank you very much.

Source Notes

  1. Bryan, William Lowe. Indiana University School of Medicine Commencement. 18 May 1907. Indiana University Archives. http://www.libraries.iub.edu/index.php?pageId=93
  2. Much of the information about Dr. Walther’s life comes from a 1992 interview conducted with Dr. Walther by the IU Oral History Research Center. Available through Indiana University Archives.
  3. Wells, Herman B. “Remarks at the Dedication of the Clinical Buildling.” Indiana University Medical Center. Indianapolis, Indiana. 14 May 1938. Indiana University Archives. http://www.libraries.iub.edu/index.php?pageId=93.