Morris Arthur Wessel, who practiced pediatrics in New Haven for 42 years until his retirement in 1993, died Saturday at age 98 at the New Haven home in which he had lived for half a century.
Wessel was known, as the Yale Medical School alumni magazine once put it, as “a pediatrician who treated not just the children but the whole family.”
Born in Providence, R.I., Wessel was the sole child of Morris J. Wessel, who had died in the influenza epidemic of 1918, and Bessie Bloom Wessel, a sociologist who was on the faculty of Connecticut College. Wessel graduated from Johns Hopkins University in 1939 and received his M.D. from Yale Medical School in 1943. After serving in the U.S. Army, he became a pediatric fellow at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn., where met the woman who would later become his wife, Irmgard Rosenzweig. Their first encounter, she once recalled, occurred when she spotted him riding a bicycle in the hallways of the clinic. Three months after Wessel arrived at the Mayo Clinic, noted pediatrician Ben Spock joined the project and became, in Wessel’s recollection, “a vitally important mentor for me.”
As a research fellow at Yale Medical School, Wessel joined in the landmark “rooming-in” study by the late clinical professor Edith B. Jackson, M.D., which examined how keeping newborns in their mothers’ hospital rooms affected families. His participation in the study also helped Wessel decide what kind of pediatrician he wanted to be. His role in the study was to interview parents during pregnancy. Mothers- and fathers-to-be often burst into tears as they recounted traumatic childhood incidents such as the death of a parent. “Is there any way that we as pediatricians could support families during a crisis like that?” he asked himself. In 1954, he offered a widely accepted – and still widely cited—definition of “colic” as a healthy baby with periods of intense, unexplained fussing/crying lasting more than 3 hours a day, more than 3 days a week for more than 3 weeks.
With Anthony Dominski, Ph.D, he investigated lead levels in children in the 1970s and recommended a level then thought to be unrealistically low. The American Academy of Pediatrics eventually recommended an even lower level. With Florence Wald, former dean of the Yale School of Nursing, Wessel studied the treatment of terminally ill patients, which Wald believed was often futile and dehumanizing. She told Wessel his role would be to help her understand doctors’ thinking. “I can’t explain why doctors do what they do,” he told her. But he agreed to help. Their work led in 1974 to the founding of Connecticut Hospice, the nation’s first hospice. He also served as president of the parent-teacher organization at Richard C. Lee High School.
When Wessel retired from private practice in 1993, hundreds celebrated Morris Wessel Day in New Haven’s Edgerton Park. He continued to work as a consultant to the Clifford Beers Clinic, the oldest outpatient behavioral health clinic in the United States, and retired from that post in 1997. At that time, the clinic named its national trauma center the Morris Wessel Child and Family Trauma Center of the Clifford Beers Clinic. In 1995, he received an honorary degree from Connecticut College.
In 1997, Wessel was awarded the American Academy of Pediatrics’ C. Anderson Aldrich Award, which recognizes achievement by a physician in the field of child development. “My goal was to use my relationship to families to enhance the capacities of parents and children to meet as effectively as possible stresses in their lives,” he said in his acceptance speech. “I feel very much a part of a timeless continuity of values that binds
pediatricians together as we care for children and families.”
Wessel’s wife, Irmgard Rosenzweig Wessel, died in 2014.He is survived by four children, David, Bruce, Paul and Lois; eight grandchildren; two great-grandchildren and hundreds of former patients.
Contributions may be made to the Morris and Irmgard Wessel Fund, a donor-advised fund at the Community Foundation of Greater New Haven, which makes annual awards to unsung heroes who are improving life for residents of the city.
Funeral services will be held at noon., Monday, Aug. 22, at the Shure Funeral Home, 543 George Street, New Haven, and the family will observe a period of mourning on Monday and Tuesday, Aug. 22 and Aug. 23, at 61 Elmwood Road, New Haven.