In memoriam: Dr. William N. Spellacy

One of the first maternal-fetal medicine subspecialists, he excelled at academic medicine and advanced women’s health with a focus on the patient

USF Health’s William N. Spellacy, a nationally renowned academic physician who was instrumental in advancing women’s health and shaping the initial subspecialties in obstetrics and gynecology, died Oct. 8, 2015.  He was 81.

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Dr. William N. Spellacy

Dr. Spellacy, a board-certified obstetrician-gynecologist and one of the discipline’s first maternal-fetal medicine subspecialists, joined the University of South Florida College of Medicine in 1988 to become chair of the Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology – a leadership role he held for the next 14 years. He arrived at USF in 1988 bringing nine people from the University of Illinois in Chicago, where he had developed and led an Ob-Gyn department that achieved national prominence.

In addition to chairing three academic OB/GYN departments during his lifetime, Dr. Spellacy was one of the principal architects of the three original subspecialties in Ob-Gyn: maternal-fetal medicine, reproductive endocrinology and gynecologic oncology. The new subspecialty board certifications allowed physicians to gain additional training to advance patient care and research.

Building a competitive residency program

Soon after his arrival at USF, Dr. Spellacy mobilized efforts to build an ambulatory program at Tampa General Hospital, expanding opportunities for outpatient training and care.  The highly competitive residency program he built at USF routinely attracted hundreds of applicants, and many chosen ranked first or second in their medical school classes.

Among those for whom Dr. Spellacy served as a mentor and colleague was Catherine Lynch, MD, professor of obstetrics and gynecology and associate vice president of Faculty Development and Women’s Health at USF Health Morsani College of Medicine.

“Dr. Spellacy is the reason I stayed at USF,” said Dr. Lynch, who was a top third-year medical student when Dr. Spellacy was recruited as chair.

When interviewing for Ob-Gyn residency slots across the country at institutions like Duke, Yale and Brown University, Dr. Lynch said, all the faculty and chairs she spoke with were impressed by her letter of recommendation from Dr. Spellacy, but also often followed up with a question. “They inevitably asked, ‘Why do you want to leave Tampa, when you have one of the best OB programs in the country with Dr. Spellacy?'”

Dr. Lynch stayed at USF, and was recruited by Dr. Spellacy as a faculty member in general OB-Gyn.  He delivered both her daughters.

Dr. Spellacy

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“I’ve never worked a day in my life”

In 2012, Dr. Spellacy was honored with the USF Health Morsani College of Medicine Dean’s Award. As he addressed the audience at the ceremony, he recalled when he graduated from medical school that he received advice from his father stating that if he went into a field he loved he would never work a day in his life.

“I remember Dr. Spellacy closing by saying he never worked a day in his life,” Dr. Lynch said. “That exemplified his true love for medical education, patient care and anything related to women’s health.”

Anna Parsons, MD, and Michael Parsons, MD, USF emeritus faculty now retired from the Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology, were among those who trained under Dr. Spellacy and followed him to USF from the University of Illinois College of Medicine.

At a time when the term “patient-centric” was not yet part of the health care lexicon, Dr. Spellacy demonstrated to trainees and students what it meant to put patients at the center of their practice.

“He was very busy, yet he was the only physician I saw who turned off his pager whenever he went into a session with a patient,” Dr. Anna Parsons said. “He taught me that a patient should leave feeling better when you walked into the room, even if their problems are serious, because you’ve focused only on her, explained (a diagnosis) clearly, come up with a care plan and offered hope.”

Promoting access to quality care for all women

Dr. Spellacy spent much of his academic career working to ensure that all women gained access to the best medical care possible.  Among his achievements in the Tampa Bay region:

  • With support from a $1-million legislative appropriation and TGH administration, he was instrumental in creating the Genesis clinic in a renovated county building – a TGH center where USF physicians continue to provide comprehensive women’s health care for medically underserved patients today, including prenatal and infant care.
  • He helped develop a plan, still in place, that provides continuity of prenatal, postpartum and gynecological care for incarcerated pregnant women in Hillsborough County, including hospitalizations at TGH for all deliveries and gynecological surgeries. Dr. Spellacy himself visited jail for nearly two decades to help care for the female inmates.
  • He directed a Perinatal Outreach Program, which brought a specialized USF team, including a maternal-fetal medicine physician, perinatal nurse practitioner and genetic counselor, to rural clinics in Hillsborough, Pasco and Polk counties to provide specialized prenatal care for women with high-risk pregnancies.
Dr. Spellacy and Dr

Dr. Aronoff and Dr. Spellacy

A voracious reader and contributor to research literature

Dr. Spellacy, who had a passion for acquiring and sharing knowledge, was elected in 1992 to the prestigious Institute of Medicine, now the Academy of Medicine – one of medicine’s highest honors.

To remain current in his field, Dr. Spellacy read a prodigious number of medical journals – so many, Dr. Anna Parsons said, that “he once joked that he read his height in journals every week, and he was 6 feet 1 inch tall.”

Dr. Spellacy’s own contributions to the research literature were impressive. He authored more than 500 peer-reviewed articles, 80 book chapters and 10 books, including topics covering diabetes in pregnancy, contraception, biochemical and biophysical fetal monitoring, prevention of preterm delivery complications, and evaluating teaching effectiveness for medical students and residents, to name a few.

James Mayer, MD, now an associate professor of Ob-Gyn, joined USF as a new resident, completed the department’s first fellowship in reproductive endocrinology and infertility, and was invited to remain as a faculty member during Dr. Spellacy’s tenure.

Dr. Mayer recalls the library card catalog where Dr. Spellacy would file away cards, each with a few sentences concisely summarizing findings from articles he had read.  During board rounds, if a diagnosis, treatment or another topic emerged that a resident seemed unsure about, Dr. Spellacy would refer the young physician to his cataloged citations.

“He’d say ‘you can probably learn something about that in the second paragraph, third article of this particular journal.’” Dr. Mayer said. “He kept you on your toes, but you always felt like he was on your side. He taught and mentored in a way that built people up, so you aspired to be like him.”

“Dr. Spellacy was an unusually unassuming person who focused on others’ needs, and treated everyone with the same degree of dignity and respect. He was always thinking about ways to improve the experiences of his faculty, residents, students and patients” Dr. Parsons said. “He got the best from people by focusing on their successes and strengths.”

A career of leadership and service

A native of St. Paul, MN, Dr. Spellacy earned his undergraduate and MD degrees at the University of Minnesota, where he also completed a residency in obstetrics and gynecology and began his profession in academic medicine as a faculty member in 1963. He moved to the University of Miami in 1967 and quickly advanced to the academic rank of professor.

While still in his 30s, Dr. Spellacy was recruited to chair the Department of Ob-Gyn at the University of Florida, where he remained until 1979.  He moved to Chicago to head the Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology at the University of Illinois. Under his leadership, the department achieved national prominence in research, education and patient care.

Throughout his career, Dr. Spellacy held committee memberships and leadership positions with many prominent professional organizations. He was elected president of Association of Professors of Obstetrics and Gynecology (APGO), the Society for Gynecologic Investigation, the Society of Perinatal Obstetricians, and the Perinatal Research Society.  He directed the American Board of Obstetrics and Gynecology and served as an oral examiner for the certifying board.

His numerous honors and awards included the American College of Obstetrics and Gynecology’s Perdue-Frederick Research Award, the APGO Excellence in Teaching Award (twice), the Council on Resident Education in Obstetrics and Gynecology National Faculty Award for Excellence in Residency Education, USF Outstanding Resident Teaching Award, and USF Distinguished Research Professor.  He was named several times to the Good Housekeeping “Best Doctors for Women” list and the “Best Doctors in America” list.

Even after stepping down as chair in 2002, Dr. Spellacy continued on as a professor focusing on USF medical student and resident education. He continued to serve as Ob-Gyn residency program director, a role he filled his entire time as chair, until 2012.

A triple-threat academic physician

As a role model who excelled in all three areas of academic medicine – education, research clinical care – Dr. Spellacy influenced generations of students, residents and faculty, some of whom advanced to positions as department chairs, heads of boards, or other leadership roles.

Dr. Spellacy completed his first marathon in Chicago at age 50, running alongside some of his University of Illinois residents. He turned that experience into a teachable moment when shortly thereafter he delivered an address at the Society for Gynecologic Investigation annual meeting, Dr. Parsons recalled.

“He based his talk on teaching people to run for endurance and running as team,” she said. “And, he spoke about the joy of eventually having those you’ve taught run on ahead of you.”

Dr. Spellacy’s legacy will live on in the hundreds of residents he personally trained, countless he influenced and thousands of babies he delivered and women he cared for.

Known for his punctuality, Dr. Spellacy passed away at 9 a.m. sharp on Oct. 8 from complications from a fall he experienced after leaving the office in summer 2014.  He is survived by his wife of 32 years, Lynn M. Larsen; and his children, Kathleen Spellacy, William N. Spellacy Jr., and Kimberly Schroeder (Timothy); and grandchildren, Zackary and Andrew Abraham, William N. Spellacy II, Garrett Spellacy, and Avery and Eleanor Schroeder.

A memorial service will be held 2 p.m., Saturday, Oct. 24, at St. Boniface Episcopal Church, 5615 Midnight Pass Rd. (Siesta Key), Sarasota, FL 34242. Blount & Curry MacDill, 813-876-2421.

Contributions in Dr. Spellacy’s honor can be made to The William Spellacy Memorial Fund #250283 on both the USF Unstoppable online giving site and the USF Faculty & Staff Giving site. The link for donations to the William Spellacy Memorial Fund is bit.ly/spellacy.
 

A chapter about Dr. Spellacy, written by Dr. Michael Parsons, and included in the book “Evolution of an Academic Department: Obstetrics and Gynecology at the University of South Florida” was used as a source for this article.

Story by Anne Delotto Baier, USF Health Office of Communications.