Obituary: Charles Gray Watson
Highly respected surgeon, professor at University of Pittsburgh

Wednesday, January 19, 2000
By Gary Rotstein, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

Dr. Charles Gray Watson outlived his father by less than three months after following in his footsteps as a surgeon and professor, but his three decades of work were plenty of time to have a beneficial impact on thousands of students and patients.

Dr. Watson died of respiratory failure Sunday at UPMC Presbyterian at age 63, after a lung ailment had put him in the hospital four months earlier. He packed a lot of nurturing into his life span, which he had spent since 1968 as a clinician and professor of surgery in the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine.

The lanky doctor with the snappy bow ties and a cheerful demeanor was the faculty member most likely to be sought out for advice by any medical school student or resident with an interest in surgery. He was the one who would open his Squirrel Hill home for extended stays by new faculty members looking for housing. He was the one heading up the surgery department's fund-raising campaign for academic endowments, and doing it quite successfully, until he fell ill.

His influence might best be symbolized by the Golden Apple awards. Those are presented annually as a teacher-of-the-year recognition by the medical school's graduating class. Dr. Watson won them from three different classes.

As students accompanied him on rounds to visit patients, he demonstrated the importance of treating people with patience and warmth.

"Chuck was a terrific surgeon, but he really was a great teacher with a generosity of spirit unmatched by anybody else I've ever met, and much appreciated by medical students," said Dr. Richard L. Simmons, the medical director of UPMC Health System and former chairman of surgery for the medical school.

Dr. Watson was from a family in which his great-grandfather, father and uncle all were respected surgeons, and the school of medicine has an endowed professorship in honor of the Watson family. His father, Dr. James Rose Watson, died in October. His son, Andrew, is now a surgical resident at UPMC.

Dr. Watson spent time around his father's office and patients when he was growing up in Rosslyn Farms. He graduated from Phillips Andover Academy and Princeton University and obtained his medical degree from the Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons in 1961.

After interning and other training in Cleveland and Boston, he returned to Pittsburgh in 1968. He eventually became vice chairman for education in the University of Pittsburgh's surgery department while practicing at Presbyterian University, Montefiore, Shadyside and Magee hospitals and the Veterans Administration Hospital. His specialty was endocrine surgery.

Dr. Watson's main office was a cluttered one in the university's Scaife Hall, where he mentored students while WQED-FM's classical music played in the background. He was known as the "velvet harpoon," because he was so skilled at slinging a well-intentioned barb to remind students of any failures in judgment.

The young trainees got his point without taking offense, and when they needed letters of recommendation, he wrote them. When they needed a phone call to another university or hospital for help gaining placement in their next training program, he made the call.

"He was an extremely nurturing individual, clearly the best person in the department when it came to students," said Dr. Timothy Billiar, current chairman of the department of surgery. "He was motivated to assure that future generations of residents and medical students were well advised, had appropriate direction and guidance in their career choice, and made their career in surgery look interesting to them."

Dr. Watson had numerous honors as both a teacher and surgeon. He received the Chancellor's Distinguished Teaching Award in 1992.

He began giving up some of his educational responsibilities last year, and the graduating medical class, along with alumni, jointly dedicated the 1999 graduation "To Dr. Charles Watson: In appreciation of your dedication to teaching both the science and art of medicine to a generation of physicians."

His passion other than medicine was for sailing. He sailed with his family to Maine each summer on his boat, the Odyssey. They made other sailing trips to Scotland and the Grenadines, and one year, they entered a race from Cape Cod to Bermuda.

He is survived by his wife, Nancy; sons Gray of Lexington, Mass., and Andrew of Edgewood; a brother, William of Cambridge, Mass.; a sister, Ann Kaiser of Charlottesville, Va.; and one grandson.

A memorial service for both Dr. Watson and his father will be held at 11 a.m. Saturday in Heinz Memorial Chapel, Oakland.

Memorial contributions may be made to the Surgical Research Endowment Fund, University of Pittsburgh, c/o Department Office, Box 131, Scaife Hall, Pittsburgh 15261.