Dr. George Henry Koepke; 1916-2013: Toledo native a medical pioneer


FINDLAY — Dr. George Henry Koepke, a Toledo native and a pioneer in physical medicine and rehabilitation, particularly in aiding polio victims, died Tuesday in his home in Findlay.

Dr. Koepke, 97, died of apparent natural causes, said his daughter, Susan Healy.

He still attended continuing education courses in medicine until recently, his daughter said.

In 1953 he was the University of Michigan’s first resident of its fledgling department of physical medicine and rehabilitation, joining the faculty a year later.

While teaching physical medicine and rehabilitation at UM, he founded a laboratory for electroneuromyography, which evaluates electrical activity produced by skeletal muscles. The technique is applicable to the care of amputees and burn victims. In 1958 he developed the school’s orthotics and prosthetics division.

He was born in Toledo on Jan. 1, 1916, to Gust and Louise Koepke.

After graduating from DeVilbiss High School, he worked at his uncle’s slaughterhouse to save for medical school. His job was to kill the steers, his daughter said.

“He just hated that,” Ms. Healy said.

He received a BS from the University of Toledo in 1945, and then went to Chicago for a two-year program to become a doctor of osteopathic medicine, Ms. Healy said.

He practiced osteopathic medicine until he could afford the University of Cincinnati, earning his medical degree in 1949.

He played saxophone in bands while in college to raise money for school, his daughter said.

Dr. Koepke interned at the Toledo Hospital, followed by a residency in physical medicine and rehabilitation at UM.

In 1954, while an instructor at UM, he was appointed director of physical medicine and rehabilitation at Opportunity House.

Opportunity House, operated by the Toledo Society for Crippled Children for polio victims, served as a convalescent hospital, home, and school. It was sold to the Catholic diocese in 1963, which turned it into St. Anthony’s Villa orphanage.

His appointment to Opportunity House was deemed critical to the facility’s outreach for children suffering from polio, or infantile paralysis, an acute viral infection that swept the country in a series of epidemics through the mid-1950s.

His work with polio became personal when his daughter Sandra contracted the illness at age 4, Ms. Healy said.

Polio vaccines developed in 1950 halted the epidemics. Dr. Koepke was a member of the University of Michigan team working on polio treatments when Dr. Jonas Salk announced his vaccine in 1955 in Ann Arbor, his daughter said.

Dr. Koepke transferred his knowledge of polio’s neurological effect on muscles and bones into treatments involving orthotics, prosthetics, and respirators, Ms. Healy said.

In 2006, the University of Michigan’s board of regents lauded Dr. Koepke as a pioneer, calling him “a strong mentor and a major influence on trainees in the field of physical medicine and rehabilitation.

“He was instrumental in developing the science and rationale for the clinical aspects of [physical medicine and rehabilitation], including electrodiagnostic medicine … and rehabilitation of burns,” said a citation naming him professor emeritus.

He retired from UM in 1976, moving to Saginaw, Mich., where he began a private practice. He remained there until 1985 when he moved to Findlay.

In Findlay he continued his involvement with medicine, working with the Hancock County Medical Society. He volunteered with the Blanchard Valley Regional Health Center, expanding its medical library and assisting the hospital in its accreditations, Ms. Healy said.

The hospital’s medical library bears his name.

Dr. Koepke was an avid horseman and kept a Vermont Morgan. He also owned an airplane, having received his pilot’s license in the 1960s.

He married the former Helen LaBoiteaux in Perrysburg on Oct. 6, 1940, and she died in 2010.

Surviving are his daughters Susan Healy and Sandra Bunting, four grandchildren, and five great-grandchildren.

Visitation will be from 2 to 4 and 6 to 8 p.m. today at Coldren-Crates Funeral Home, Findlay. The funeral will be at 11 a.m. Tuesday at First Presbyterian Church, Findlay, where he was a member.

Tributes are suggested to the First Presbyterian Church or the Blanchard Valley Health Foundation’s physicians’ medical education endowment fund.

Contact Jim Sielicki at: jsielicki@theblade.com or 419-724-6050.