In the News

H. Fred Helmholz, MD: 1911–2012

January 9, 2011

H. Frederic Helmholz
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Respiratory therapists far and wide are mourning the death of one of our profession’s most respected names. H. Fred Helmholz, MD, passed away on Saturday in Rochester, MN, just a little over a week after celebrating his 100th birthday with family, friends, and colleagues.

“Dr. Helmholz was a great friend to the AARC and the entire respiratory care profession,” says AARC President Karen Stewart, MS, RRT, FAARC. “He will long be remembered for making some of the most significant advancements we’ve seen in clinical respiratory care and in the development of respiratory care as a separate professional entity.”

Dr. Helmholz worked closely with the NBRC. Gary Smith, NBRC Executive Director, had this to say: “He had tremendous passion for education and precision in measurement, making him a perfect fit for many years of service to the NBRC as well as the respiratory care education system.  Dr. Helmholz was one of only two individuals awarded Honorary Trustee Emeritus status by his friends and colleagues on the NBRC. He so enriched our lives and engaged our brains.  Fred, as he was affectionately known, will be greatly missed by many.”

Jeff Ward, a respiratory therapist colleague from Mayo, had this to say about his longtime friend: “In spite of his huge intellect and incredible education background, Dr. Helmholz was unassuming and approachable. He taught me that students remember good stories; they then can use it to connect the points of physiology. He was diplomatic and kind; he lived the life guideline, 'avoid senseless contradictions with others.'” Ward mentioned that Dr. Helmholz had joy of learning and was taking a course in astronomy just prior to his death. 

World War II spurs interest in RC

A graduate of Dartmouth College and Johns Hopkins University, Dr. Helmholz’s long association with respiratory care began during World War II, when the Surgeon General of the Army Air Force asked him to take over the helm of a high-altitude laboratory in San Diego, CA, aimed at studying personnel and aeronautical systems to be used during combat. A physiology fellow at the Mayo Clinic Graduate School in Rochester, MN, at the time, Dr. Helmholz answered the call and was soon immersed in research on decompression chambers and aviator bends.

About a year later, he returned to Mayo, assuming responsibility for the Clinic’s own aeromedical laboratory after the director, Dr. Walter Boothby, co-inventor of the BLB mask, fell ill. The job there centered around oxygen therapy and the development of oxygen masks that could be used both clinically and militarily, and further piqued his interest in the growing field of respiratory care. For awhile, he commuted between San Diego and Rochester, helping both labs fulfill their wartime purposes and building knowledge that would soon play a major role in peacetime medicine as well.

Pioneering work in PFTs

Following the war, Dr. Helmholz returned to Mayo full time, moving up the academic ranks at the medical school and continuing his research on the lungs. He also got involved in studies on mechanical ventilation and even participated in the first open heart surgery to take place at the Clinic. His interest in oxygen therapy flourished as well, and he set up a pulmonary function laboratory where some of the first pulmonary function tests were developed.

The latter activity caught the attention of fellow physicians in Chicago who were busy working with the American Medical Association to organize formal education for the newly emerging profession of “inhalation therapy.” Dr. Helmholz was introduced to the late Albert H. Andrews, Jr., MD, one of the founders of the AARC, who asked him to serve on the Board of Schools—the initial group responsible for overseeing respiratory care education. Dr. Helmholz agreed, marking the beginning of what was to become a lifetime of service to the respiratory care profession.

Demanding high standards for the new profession

Dr. Helmholz is widely credited with placing the profession on firm educational ground. Through his service on the Board of Schools, he demanded high standards, and he persevered in that philosophy throughout the formative years of the profession. When respiratory care leaders decided to transition their educational accreditation program from the Board of Schools to the Joint Review Committee on Respiratory Therapy Education (JRCRTE)—the group that governed RT educational programs until the formation of the current Committee on Accreditation of Respiratory Care—Dr. Helmholz stepped up to serve as its first chair, running the organization out of his own offices at the Mayo Clinic for the first six or seven years, often at his own expense.

Along the way he also started an RT educational program of his own at the Mayo Clinic, doing most of the teaching himself.

Award winning service

Although he retired from both the Mayo Clinic and JRCRTE in 1976, Dr. Helmholz remained active in respiratory care for many years to come, maintaining an office at the Clinic, attending weekly briefings held by the pulmonary/physiology staff, and participating as an instructor in the RT program.

He also continued his service to the respiratory care profession, serving on the National Board for Respiratory Care’s Board of Trustees from 1976 to 1988 and as president in 1985. The NBRC honored Dr. Helmholz with its Albert H. Andrews, Jr., MD, Award in 1988, and he received the Board’s second Sister Mary Yvonne Jenn, RRT Lifetime Achievement Award in 2004. He was the first Board member to achieve Trustee Emeritus status.

The AARC honored Dr. Helmholz with Honorary Member status, and he won the prestigious Jimmy A. Young Medal for his lifetime of service in 1993.

Sputum Bowl presence

For many years, Dr. Helmholz was a major presence at the annual Sputum Bowl as well, where he served as a judge, introducing new generations of respiratory therapists to his wisdom and wit. Indeed, many RTs will remember him best as the distinguished gentleman at the finals competition, where he often appeared decked out as anything from Santa Claus to an antebellum Southern gentleman.


Your comments

In spite of his huge intellect and incredible education background Dr. Helmholz was unassuming and approachable. Fred had an almost child-like joy of learning; he was taking a course in astronomy just prior to his death. And he loved the Sputum Bowl. His capabilities extended to jazz music, architecture and draftsmanship, and poetry. He was a great mentor as an educator. He taught me that students remember good stories; they then can use it to connect the points of physiology. He was diplomatic and kind; he lived the life guideline, “avoid senseless contradictions with others.” Fred was a wonderful friend to so many. He was charismatic in definition of the Greek word: “having gift of grace.”

Jeff Ward

I am forever grateful to Dr. Helmholtz for sharing his wisdom when I was a student, his professionalism as I grew professionally, and his legacy as the former director of the Mayo PF lab, which I am so proud to be associated with. God Bless him!

Carl Mottram

I had the honor and pleasure to serve as an NBRC Trustee during Dr. Helmholtz’s tenure, and I count collaborating with him to develop standardized competency examinations for respiratory therapists as one of my career highlights. I’d like to think that he and the late Dr. Bob Lawrence might be renewing their passion for early morning walks together to “get the juices flowing!”

Patrick J Dunne

Fred was instrumental in putting me on the right track as a very new and inexperienced respiratory care program director back in 1975, and for that I will be forever grateful. We will all miss him.

David Shelledy

As respiratory therapists we can never forget what Dr. Helmholtz meant, mean and will always mean for our profession. His dedication, his long time service, his wisdom and grace shall never be forgotten. His presence at the AARC meetings where I remember him the most and where we talked about the profession. We will miss him, but I thank God that he lived so long and a very rewarding life.

Julian Cano

Dr. Helmholz is a true treasure to our profession. A Class Act in every way.

John Hiser

I first met Dr. Helmholtz in the mid-1990s. I found him to be approachable, down-to-earth, and encouraging. Yet, he also had an aura that made you feel privileged to be with him. Among other things, we shared a love of poetry and the human side of medicine. Over the years, we corresponded and became friends. In 2004, Fred greatly helped me deal with the loss of my wife because he had experienced the same loss himself. He will be missed, but his legacy will live on in all of us who were touched by him.

Bill French

Dr. Helmholz was a true pioneer in aviation medicine, cardiopulmonary physiology and pulmonary function diagnostics. He was one of the most intelligent individuals that many of us ever had the pleasure of meeting, much less having been able to call him friend. He was a true gentleman; I never heard a cross word utter from his lips. Fred’s talents were boundless, from poetry to medicine. Many of us have special poems he wrote for us in our store of treasures. He had tremendous passion for education and precision in measurement, making him a perfect fit for many years of service to the NBRC as well as the respiratory care education system. Dr. Helmholz was one of only two individuals awarded Honorary Trustee Emeritus status by his friends and colleagues on the NBRC. He so enriched our lives and engaged our brains. Fred, as he was affectionately known, will be greatly missed by many.

Gary Smith

One of the most delightful gentlemen I have ever met. His kind words, his wisdom, his humility, and his infectious enthusiam will live with me forever. I cannot imagine what Respiratory Care, its educational system, and its credentialling system would be without his touch in every aspect. For Fred, and there is and was only one, I salute!

Charlie G. Brooks, Jr.

I knew of Dr. Helmholz, but was honored when he served as a program referee to my program in the 80s. He provided guidance and suggestions without any tone of criticism in either written or verbal discussions. He was a delight to visit with. Referees used to visit every clinical site. While traveling to a site, I got lost in our conversation…and on the road! I always wondered if he thought “does that guy ever go to this site?” May God’s blessings be with this outstanding RT Father for his many contributions. Rest in peace, friend.

Barry Westling

It was an honor to have Dr Helmholz fulfill such a rich role in the RT profession in Minnesota and nationally. He was a true gem of a man and will be missed by many. God Bless him.

Curt Merriman

It can truly be said that Dr. Helmholz was as kind, approachable, and fun-loving as he was wise, intelligent and professional. He was gifted with the ability to share his joy of all things with those around him. We did not all have the chance to be taught by him, but his books of poems, chats at meetings, and the memories of his Sputum Bowl appearances leave a lasting legacy to us all. He lived long and well and will be sorely missed.

Larry Conway

I will always remember Dr. Helmholtz as a quietly brilliant, kind gentleman with a sparkle in his eye. His legacy of commitment and passion for the respiratory therapy profession is an inspiration to us all. It was an honor and blessing to know him.

Sherry Barnhart

On a professional level Dr. Helmholz was often referred to as the Grandfather of Respiratory Therapy but on a personal level he was like a real Grandfather and a hero to me. We all knew him to be a great teacher and advocate of our profession, but for all the accolades he was incredibly humble…and such a kind gentleman. He loved to share stories from the past, especially the WWII research and development of avionics equipment and how he, Earl Woods, Randy Lovelace and others served as their own test subjects…tests you could never conduct today. He was very proud of his brothers Carl and Lindsey and told me of their own contributions to the War effort.

In early November Fred was hospitalized. When I visited him, Fred remarked he was really starting to feel like an old man! We shared more stories but before leaving the room he remarked he was antsy to get back to his apartment…he had another correspondence course he was in the middle of and homework to catch up on!

On December 27th, Fred turned 100. Deep down I know this was the final goal he wanted to accomplish and he celebrated in style!

Fred, I will miss you.

Allen Kendall

He was a remarkable man. Having worked previously at Mayo Clinic, he shed many new ideas and information that will forever change the way I practice. You will be missed and well respected for future years to come.

Thank you for all you did!!

Joseph P Buhain

25 years ago Fred taught our Respiratory class and had a hundred stories to tell us. We will keep your inspiring stories going till the end of time.

Curt Merriman

A few thoughts about Fred:
• He endured our fights and controversies
• Taught us the art and science of Medicine
• Fun-loving…..sputum bowl competitions
• A pioneer
• Integrity, discipline, hard-work, wisdom
• Insightful poetry
• Told us not to insert a “character standard” in our State membership requirements. What were we thinking?
• “You forget as you age but wait a bit and you will remember” – mostly true for me
• Irreplaceable
• Everyone’s friend

Thank you Fred

Alex Adams

I formally met Dr. Helmholtz in 2002 (only a decade ago)when he shook my hand for winning the Helmholtz award for writing a paper on perflubron. I was so excited to meet this man of vision for our profession. He was “down to earth” and eager to discuss the history of our profession. Yes, I sensed he was a lifelong learner and I hope we—as fellow practitioners—may honor his legacy by living life to its fullest like he did. Peace to you Fred.

Debbie Farnham, RRT, AE-C, CTTS

Dr. Helmholtz was and still is an icon for the respiratory therapy profession. Minnesota was always proud to claim his as “ours”. He had a brilliant mind and yet the spirit of a curious boy. He will be greatly missed. He was a great blessings to his friends and family and he surely will be missed.

Debra Skees

Just pulled out my signed copy of “Poems Are an Author’s Way”. Years ago, I had a conversation with Fred about teaching. We talked briefly about our role, our impact, and our desires for the young grads. He promised to send me a copy of a poem. For those of you that have the book, it’s on page 10 and is entitled, “To Graduates”. It is only 8 lines and the first starts off with “May all of the patients you care for get well.” It ends with “future years really good fun!” This says it all. Over the years, I have used this occasionally at our graduation exercises and with his passing will probably make it a regular practice. Fred was an educator, a scholar, and the consumate gentlemen. Respiratory Care lost a true pioneer. Fred, Thanks for your contribution, your dedication and your wisdom. BTW, Fred’s poems are available through Lambda Beta and/or previously published in Jeff Ward’s program Newsletter at Rochester/Mayo. Also, donations from this book are used to fund scholarships through Lambda Beta. No surprise as Fred wouldn’t want it any other way—a wonderful legacy.

Bill Galvin

I still have a “crink” in my neck from looking up at him from 5 feet away during daily lectures in the miniscule classroom in the basement of St Mary’s for months in 1975–76. To this day “Fred-isms” pepper my thinking including a healthy mistrust of electronic devices that cannot be calibrated. In an era of dollar-driven medicine, he was a true example of patient-focused medicine and was willing to make his singular educational contributions at a time of life when most persons would be focused on golf. Vaya con Dios!

Doug Bond RRT

25 years ago Fred taught our Respiratory class and had a hundred stories to tell us. We will keep your inspiring stories going till the end of time…

John Framsted

Dr. Fred was one of the most interesting men I ever met. His love for Respiratory Care, Respiratory Therapist, Education, AARC and Quality of patient care was paramount. His concern for the well being of the Respiratory Care Profession and how it was received in the health care community was quite visable. I know I will miss the chats we use to have because I always felt better after talking with him. He will truly be missed mind and yet the spirit of a curious boy. He will be greatly missed. He was a great blessings to his friends and family and he surely will be missed.

Jerry S. Bridgers

I first met Fred as a faculty member in a program undergoing its accreditation review. Several years later I got to know Fred while developing NBRC tests. Two things stand out for me about these experiences. First, Fred put students first, whether in their programs or taking their credentialing tests. Second, Fred was kind, bright, and humble all beyond what one would expect.

Robert Shaw

I fondly remember Dr. Helmholz faithfully attending critical care service grand rounds each week. He was the one person we could count on being there since he was retired and didn't have any other responsibilities. The insights he shared into how so many things evolved in respiratory care were fascinating. Having people like Dr. Helmholz around at Mayo gave me an appreciation for how everything we think is new is simply rediscovered. I thoroughly enjoyed discussing something as mundane as pressure control ventilation in acute lung injury with him. He was always gracious with his time after grand rounds to talk to me. He was very interested in my review of pulmonary edema after pneumonectomy and offered many helpful insights into treating complications of thoracic surgery in the early days. I will always be grateful for having known him. May God bless you and all the great work you did on Earth, Fred.

W. Sherman Turnage, MD

Dr. Helmholz was an inspiration. He exuded passion and energy as he taught our physiology section (Class of '81)and gave me an earnest respect for the masters of our profession. He filled our heads with stories of airplane cockpits, the early days at Mayo, and the pioneers in pulmonary medicine. I believe he truly loved the respiratory therapy students and taught us the deepest meaning of mutual respect between mentor and mentee. I treasure my memories of those days...

Karen Shaw

How blessed our profession has been to be led by such a kind, visionary scientist! Fred, we plan to see you again, and to pick up our never-ending discussion fo the Henderson/Hesselback equation. God bless you…

George G Burton, MD