Loma Linda’s “Blue Zone” Pioneer Ellsworth Wareham Dies at 104
From News Release, 28 December 2018 | Dr. Ellsworth Wareham, the Loma Linda University (LLU) cardiac surgeon known for his vegan-supported longevity and his distinguished surgical career that included the first open-heart surgeries in many countries, has passed to his rest at the age of 104.
A 1942 surgical graduate of what was then known as the College of Medical Evangelists, he gained global fame through numerous media outlets in his later years for being the epitome of a “Blue Zone” resident, someone who lives in one of the healthiest parts of the world. The community around LLU is widely known as one of those areas.
According to a 2008 article in National Geographic, Wareham epitomized the Adventist lifestyle of a vegan diet, exercise and faith in God, all of which the physician cited as reasons for his longevity. “I think it’s important for an individual to have some security and peace in his life,” Wareham told Dr. Mehmet Oz, who interviewed him for Oprah Winfrey’s television program. “And I get that from believing in a loving, caring God, you see. And so if He’s in charge of my life, why sit around and worry? I mean, He takes care of the universe, He can certainly take care of me, so I don’t worry.”
During his medical career, Wareham performed more than 12,000 operations and continued to assist and observe younger surgeons until he was in his mid 90s. At 100, he drove and continued to do his own gardening and lawn maintenance, and lived in the two-story house he and his wife of 68 years, Barbara, shared.
Perhaps his greatest medical accomplishment came in the early 1960s, when the United States government under President John F. Kennedy was trying to improve relations with many nations, including Pakistan. A visit there by then-Vice President Lyndon B. Johnson led to a young Pakistani girl being brought to White Memorial Hospital in Los Angeles for open-heart surgery. That led to an invitation from Johnson for Wareham to go to Karachi, also home of an Adventist hospital, and perform a number of surgeries.
Speaking with LLU historian Richard Schaefer in 2002, Wareham recalled his answer to the vice president’s official request: “’Well, if you pay our way, pay for shipping our equipment, we’ll go.’ There were just six of us. We went. We took our heart-lung machine and all the supplies.”
Over time the LLU Overseas Heart Surgery Team, Schaefer reported, “performed surgery in Pakistan, India, Thailand, Taiwan, Greece, Vietnam, Saudi Arabia, Hong Kong, Kenya, Zimbabwe, the People’s Republic of China, Chile, North Korea, and the Kingdom of Nepal. Wherever they go, they either initiate or upgrade open-heart surgery programs.”
“His gentle spirit and humble demeanor belied a confidence and skill that changed heart surgery around the world,” said Dr. Richard Hart, president of LLU Health. “He left an indelible mark on many of us as young professionals … that carries on to this day.”
“Dr. Wareham was specially cited as the quintessential example of the Blue Zone by many authors,” said Dr. Roger Hadley, dean of the LLU school of medicine. “His diet, exercise program, sense of community, sense of humor and spiritually based approach to life clearly contributed to his centenarian status. He will be greatly missed.” Hadley also noted that Wareham was a mentor to Dr. Leonard Bailey who in 1985 performed the first infant heart transplant.
Wareham was born October 3, 1914, in the east Texas town of Avinger, near the Texas-Louisiana state line. He was one of six children born to Dayton Wareham and Goldie Baldwin Wareham. Both parents were Seventh-day Adventists when Ellsworth was born.
Each of the Wareham children ended up in health-related work: three brothers became dentists, and two sisters took nursing, with one also being a physical therapist. The family’s early years, beginning when they relocated to Alberta, Canada, when Ellsworth was six years old, were difficult.
“We were a family of very limited means,” he recalled in a 2002 oral history interview. “We were a large family, farmers. At the time when I was a teenager, we were in the middle of the [Great] Depression. And the depression in Canada was a very severe depression, particularly for farmers. Wheat sold for 30 cents a bushel. Oats and barley for 6 or 7 cents a bushel. These were our cash crops. Animals were worth little. It was a very difficult situation to have any plans for achieving an education of any degree. The people in our community … none of my classmates ever got a college degree.”
The young Ellsworth spent two years at Canadian Junior College, an Adventist school in Alberta which is now Burman University. Then he was out of school for two years. Then, “the definite conviction came upon me that I should take [up] medicine,” Wareham recalled. “I might say that it was as strong as hunger. It wasn’t just a vague idea. There was no other option. It wasn’t whether I had the money or didn’t have the money or how I would accomplish it. I had to accomplish it, no matter what it took to do. My credits were such that I had to take extra [course] work because I didn’t have my pre-med sciences in order. I had to go back and take additional work, although it was at the same level. I only had what would be the equivalent of two years of college.”
Training in Los Angeles, New York City, and Minneapolis followed as Wareham developed his skills in general surgery, thoracic surgery and cardiac surgery. During one of his surgical residencies, Wareham met Barbara, then a young nurse, whom he married in 1950. The Warehams had five children.
In the 2008 television interview with Dr. Oz, Barbara Wareham admitted she was not anxious for her husband to ever retire: “People ask me that a lot and I just say, ‘Leave him alone. He’s happy,'” she said. “I don’t think he’d be nearly so happy just sitting at home.”
In 2014, LLU honored Wareham with a reception for his 100th birthday, and the creation of the Ellsworth E. Wareham Global Service and Education Fund.
Survivors include his wife Barbara, children John, Martin, Robert and Julie, eight grandchildren, and six great-grandchildren. His son Scott preceded him in death in 2015. A memorial service is scheduled for 11 a.m. on Sunday (December 30) at the Loma Linda University Church.