In spite of illness, in spite even of the archenemy sorrow, one can remain alive long past the usual date of disintegration if one is unafraid of change, insatiable in intellectual curiosity, interested in big things, and happy in small ways.
—Edith Wharton (1862–1937)
Every profession or organization has at its center a soul, a conscience, a person who indelibly personifies its highest standards. Such a man was B. Raymond Fink, M.D., who died at age 86 on October 30, 2000, after a series of illnesses. He left life as he had lived it—quietly, gently, and surrounded by his loving family. Engaged in the life of the mind and writing energetically until the end, Professor Fink achieved the Greek ideal—-“to die young, as late in life as possible.”
Born in London in 1914, Dr. Fink grew up in Antwerp, Belgium. He entered the University of London at age 16, completing his medical studies in 1938. He served as a medical officer in South Africa during World War II, tending soldiers from Africa and Europe. In 1950, while directing a small mission-hospital in South Africa, Ray and his beloved wife, Peggy, decided not to raise their family in an apartheid nation and immigrated to the United States. Ray spent the next 14 years at Columbia University practicing anesthesiology and conducting landmark research. In 1964 Dr. Fink became the director of anesthesia research at the University of Washington in Seattle. He served as Professor of Anesthesiology until 1984, doing research thereafter.
B. Raymond Fink was the quintessential renaissance man, speaking and writing in seven languages and as comfortable discussing molecular mechanics or pharmacokinetics as he was in reciting poetry, discussing philosophy, or translating the works of Claude Bernard and Pirogoff. Ray believed that to every problem there was a solution lurking around the corner of someone’s mind. And the mind was often his. During his long and constantly evolving career, Ray’s many contributions made a difference, advancing and even transforming our specialty. Although it is impossible to convey the magnitude and range of his accomplishments, we are all familiar with the myriad of eponymous devices designed by Ray: the Fink valve, the Fink laryngoscope blade, and the Fink oropharyngeal airway. Moreover, as Professor Thomas Hornbein has so succinctly summarized, Ray “made remarkable contributions to our knowledge of the larynx and its role in our humanism; to how we breathe while anesthetized (including the concept of the apneic threshold); to the neuropharmacology, toxicity, and mechanisms of action of both general and local anesthetics; and to the world of pain and its management.” Indeed, the impact of these contributions was recognized by his receipt of the American Society of Anesthesiologists’ Award for Excellence in Research in 1987 as well as its Distinguished Service Award in 1993.
What is the mysterious something—beyond luck, beyond diligence—that turns talent into genius? Whatever “it” is, Ray had “it” in abundance. His ravenous curiosity was not just an appealing quality but a moral imperative, a trait that allowed this invariably cherubic, bemused inquisitor to engage so fully with neophytes and laureates alike. He provocatively enlarged our imagination of the range and possibilities of life. Indeed, in his work and life, Ray blended science and service, science and history, science and philosophy, science and humanism.
During the last two decades of his life, Ray directed much of his formidable intellect to matters historical. He served as a Trustee and Chair of the Publications Committee of the Wood Library-Museum of Anesthesiology, as Editor-in-Chief of the Proceedings of the Third International Symposium on the History of Anesthesia, and as President of the Anesthesia History Association. His 1984 Lewis Wright Memorial Lecture titled “Leaves and Needles: The Introduction of Surgical Local Anesthesia” won international renown for its brilliance. In the mid 1990s Ray’s vision and energy launched the Careers in Anesthesiology program that, to date, has produced six volumes chronicling the lives of distinguished anesthesiologists of the last half of the twentieth century. It was my great privilege to coedit with Ray the four most recent volumes in the series. During this inspirational time of working with Dr. Fink, we often discussed the importance of history and our desire to kindle in future generations of anesthesiologists a rich appreciation of their specialty’s heritage. Ray firmly believed that history ineluctably influences both the present and the future, and to that end we fervently hope to continue this project that was so close to Ray’s heart. Sadly, at the time of his death. Ray’s own autobiography was not yet completed, but we hope that his daughter, Susan Myers, will conclude her remarkable father’s memoirs.
Ultimately, however, the measure of a man or woman is not about one’s accomplishments but rather about how one conducted oneself. Professor B. Raymond Fink was the consummate intellectual but so much more; he was totally principled, graceful, benevolent, courtly, gentle, and slightly impish. Ray had rare qualities that touched our hearts and minds. He compelled not only respect, but deep affection, from all who know him. We were captivated by his sensitivity, kindness, generosity to others, and of course his sparkling warmth and incandescent intelligence—coupled with the fact that he seemed totally unaware that he possessed any of these qualities! Ray was ever the dreamer and it was his particular gift to dream and to achieve, and to become that lent him a magic that fascinated me. As we worked together on Careers, I began to appreciate how Ray could write with lapidary exactness, or create sentences that meandered elegantly through thickets of metaphor and allusion before returning gracefully to rest at whatever point he had in mind.
Ray’s many encounters with surgery during the last 18 months of his life made him a veteran in fighting death. But familiarity did not breed contempt of death but rather gave him practice in learning to face it calmly and with dignity. He found beauty in every day remaining to him, and he rejoiced in the love of his family and friends. To the end, he maintained an astonishing buoyancy that allowed him to extract the positive from even the grimmest circumstances. When death finally arrived, however, it came more as friend than foe.
The warmth, magnetism, brilliance, and generosity that Ray Fink radiated always cast a glow, and never a shadow, over those fortunate enough to be in his orbit. He was a civilized, cultured man in an era that often does not reward such individuals. We who have benefited from his presence, from his grace, from his knowledge, and from his extraordinary humanity will ineffably miss him. His modest, soft-spoken, understated incandescence will burn brightly, however, for generations to come; his spirit is unquenchable and his memory will endure. Dr. B. Raymond Fink was truly Heaven’s instrument. May God bless you, Ray, as you blessed us.