In Memoriam: Dr. Warner V. Slack ’55

Dear AlumniCorps Community,

We were deeply saddened to learn of the death of Dr. Warner V. Slack ’55, Professor of Medicine at Harvard Medical School and co-founder of the Division of Clinical Informatics, on June 23, 2018. Warner and his wife Carolyn Paxton Slack were great supporters of AlumniCorps; Warner served on AlumniCorps’ board for four terms spanning 1993 to 1999, and 2007 to 2013, and as recently as 2017 donated his time to mentor Fellows in the Boston area. Warner passed away at the age of 85 in Carolyn’s arms on the morning of their 62nd wedding anniversary after battling pulmonary fibrosis.

Warner was among the first physicians to envision the essential role that computers would play in medicine and healthcare delivery. His landmark work involving computer-patient interviews, begun during the 1960s, anticipating by decades the now-prevalent field of electronic medical records. He was a strong advocate for patient rights in what became HIPAA.  As his son, the author Charlie Slack wrote:

[Warner Slack’s] article “The Patient’s Right to Decide,” published in the British journal The Lancet, put forth a then-radical idea of “patient power”—encouraging patients and physicians alike to overturn the traditionally paternalistic nature of healthcare. Patients, Dr. Slack believed, should play a crucial part in determining their own care. Their insight, he often said, was “the least utilized resource in healthcare.’

A New Jersey native, Warner went on after Princeton to graduate from Columbia University’s College of Physicians and Surgeons in 1959. He served as a captain in the U.S. Air Force in the Philippines during the Vietnam War.  He later returned to the University of Wisconsin at Madison in the Departments of Medicine and Computer Science, where he had done his residency, and where he subsequently developed the first computer-based medical history system.  In 1970 he was recruited to Harvard. From 1989 to 1998 Dr. Slack was editor in chief of the journal MD Computing. Active in civil and humanitarian causes, Warner participated in the 1965 Selma to Montgomery Freedom March, was co-founder of Faculty and Students for Equality at University of Wisconsin, and even into his 70’s traveled to Honduras to provide humanitarian medical assistance.

 Warner V. Slack dry-erase board mural
A dry-erase board mural shared on the reflections site of the Harvard Medical Faculty Physicians Informatics Department, http://hmfpinformatics.org/slack/?show_all=true

Loved ones recall his warmth, optimism, gentleness, and generosity. He was happiest spending time with Carolyn and family at their cabin on Meddybemps Lake in Maine. A long-time Newton, MA resident, he was a trustee of Lasell College.

Warner’s classmates remember him as a warm-hearted and deeply effective leader of Princeton AlumniCorps, from its inception as Project 55 to his last days. His engagement and support ran the gamut – from assembling Fellowship mentors every year to organizing events in Boston to mentoring many Project 55 Fellows himself over the years. He also supported AlumniCorps’ mission with his time and thoughtful advice as a board member, and with his generous financial giving. As classmate George Hackl reflects, “In his self-effacing way Warner was the epitome of everything we strive to be at AlumniCorps.” On his website Ralph Nader ’55 recalls, “I called Dr. Slack to express my deepest admiration and said: ‘For all your adult life, Warner, you have been a physician’s physician, a patient’s physician, a student’s physician, a citizen’s physician, and a champion of peace and justice.’ “

In addition to his wife of 62 years, Dr. Slack is survived by daughters Alison and Jennifer, son Charlie, and seven grandchildren.

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