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Division of Rheumatology
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Campus Box 356428
Seattle, WA 98195

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Robert Willkens, M.D.



In Memoriam

Clinical Professor of Medicine

American College of Rheumatology Master





BOB WILLKENS, Emeritus Clinical Professor of Medicine in the Division of Rheumatology, died on November 11 at Harborview Medical Center after a 3 week battle with flu. We knew Bob as a gifted clinician, teacher, and scholar, a leader in the arthritis community as well as an active participant in the Seattle community. He first came to Harborview as an intern in 1954, and apart from a year as a research fellow at Columbia Presbyterian in New York, he spent his entire career at UW. His roles at Harborview included chief medical resident, president of the medical staff, and Rheumatology Section Head for 40 years.

Through his work at the University of Washington, Bob gained national and international recognition for his contributions to the effective treatment of arthritis. His main contributions were:

  1. Establishing the efficacy and defining the limits of methotrexate – his paper in J Rheumatol in 1980 was 5 years ahead of the paper in NEJM
  2. Recognition of the remarkably high prevalence of rheumatoid disease among the Yakama people of Central Washington, and his role in helping to establish the genetic basis of this association.

He has visited their reservation regularly over the last 30 years to provide expert consultative care.


Bob served at the National level working for the ACR (formerly ARA) as: Member of the Education Council, Member of CORC – Liaison, Member, Marketing & Communications Committee and Chairman, Local Arrangements Committee. He also served on four different editorial boards, including Arthritis and Rheumatism and Journal of Rheumatology.

Within Washington State, Bob served the rheumatology and medicine community as Editor the Bulletin of the King County Medical Society, chair of the Washington State Board of Medical Examiners, President and then chair of the Board of Directors for the Western Washington Chapter of the Arthritis Foundation. In addition, he was President of the Northwest Rheumatism Association and received the R.H. Williams Superior Leadership Award from the Seattle Academy of Internal Medicine.


For all of these contributions, Bob was recognized by:

  • A Distinguished Service Award from the Arthritis Foundation
  • Master and Distinguished Rheumatologist by the ACR
  • The Robert F. Willkens Professorship by the University of Washington


Bob applied the same energy that he used for Rheumatology to building up his community, believing arts and culture made life richer. He was the first board president of ACT Theatre and continued to support the theater throughout his busy career.

We will all miss Bob as a friend, colleague and mentor and conclude this obituary with Bob’s own words: Belong to something bigger than yourself; Do your part; Work with others toward a common goal; Take pride in doing your job well; Make your ideas take shape; Help build something of lasting value.

An obituary for the rheumatology community will be published in “The Rheumatologist” and a UW memorial service will be held at Harborview Medical Center most likely in February.




"Robert Willkens was a Renaissance man. The Seattle doctor and professor was a skilled researcher who could bury himself in study or the classroom at the University of Washington where he taught — but loved people too much to quit seeing patients.

He lived for the outdoors, crawled into books and photography and seldom missed a new theater opening. And he still found time to serve on foundations and boards for everything from the Pike Place Market to a nonprofit that provided jobs for the disabled.

Dr. Willkens contributed so often that he didn't seem to need sleep and couldn't retire for good until he'd reached his ninth decade, even after multiple myeloma and a stem-cell transplant left him with a compromised immune system.

Robert Willkens — doctor, civic leader, father, husband — died Wednesday at Harborview Medical Center in Seattle of complications from pneumonia and the H1N1 virus. He was 82.

Dr. Willkens was born in Brooklyn in 1927 to German immigrants and was expected to finish Stuyvesant High School, follow his father's footsteps and become a butcher. His mother had other ideas, and pushed young Robert to become more.

He studied biology at Antioch College in Ohio, interrupting his studies to serve two years in the Army just as World War II was coming to an end. He married his sweetheart, Marjory Thompson, in the college chapel on graduation day in 1950 and set off with his bride to the University of Rochester and medical school. They would settle in Seattle in the 1950s, and Dr. Willkens would land at the UW and Harborview, where he'd work for 50 years, but "this man was far, far bigger than his career," said his daughter Becky Willkens.

By the Eisenhower era, Dr. Willkens was on his way to becoming a true polymath. He craved intellectual stimulation — he loved clinical research, but he felt medicine must focus on patients. A specialist in arthritis before most people knew the term rheumatology, he treated the first patients at University Hospital, which later became UW Medical Center. He would go on to become a professor of rheumatology.

He also took up skiing and backpacking and scaled Washington's highest peak, Mount Rainier. He loved photography so much that family members recalled the annual eye-rolling as he futzed with the tripod before snapping Christmas-card photos. He liked travel and modern art and generally took on so many tasks at once that the only thing he seemed to do poorly was drive; family members joked that he had his own chair in the Mercedes body shop.

"He was a terrible driver," Becky Willkens said. "He would be talking on his cellphone and reading the paper and combing his hair all at once."

He applied that same energy to building up his community, believing arts and culture made life richer.

He was the first board president of ACT Theatre. He provided free medical care to broke actors and is believed never to have missed a production.

"Seattle was a bit of a rough-and-ready place in the 1960s," said ACT Artistic Director Kurt Beattie. "He was a very cultural man who had a passion for the art form, and he gave you the feeling when you were around him that you were talking to an enormously well-rounded, exceptionally intelligent man who had a real heart."

He was big enough that he could have dominated conversations, but he tended to hold back until he had real insight: "He had this quiet clarity," said Susan Trapnell, who knew him for 25 years.

"He didn't speak unless he had something to say that hadn't been said."

And even in his 80s, after he'd retired, Dr. Willkens regularly attended meetings of groups such as Skills, Inc., a nonprofit that provides manufacturing jobs for the disabled.

"I think after all those years at Harborview, he just wanted to keep helping people," said Todd Dunnington, head of Skills. And by all accounts he did.

Dr. Willkens is survived by his wife, Marjory Thompson Willkens, of Seattle; daughter Holly Merrick and her husband, Scott, of Edmonds; and daughter Rebecca "Becky" Willkens, of Seattle; son Garen Willkens and his wife, Patti, of Seattle; and son Matthew Willkens and his wife, Diane Valach, of Seattle; and four grandchildren. He was preceded in death by his parents, Robert Albert Willkens, of Brooklyn, and Christine Willkens, of Seattle.

A memorial service will be held at 1 p.m. Saturday at ACT Theatre, 700 Union St., in Seattle. In lieu of flowers, the family has asked that donations be made to the Robert Willkens Endowed Fund at the University of Washington, via Cathy Johnson, Division of Rheumatology, Box 356428, University of Washington, 1959 N.E. Pacific St., Seattle, WA 98195."


The Seattle Times,
November 16th, 2009



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