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Former School of Medicine Dean Holthaus, 94, oversaw major expansion of Creighton’s medical mission

Joe Holthaus, MD'47In a Creighton University career that touched parts of seven decades, Joseph M. Holthaus, BSM’46, MD’47, distinguished himself as a healer, a humorist and a humanitarian who presided over a prolific period in medical education at the University.

Holthaus died July 22, in Omaha, at the age of 94.

Between 1970 and 1980, he served as dean of the Creighton School of Medicine, during which time he oversaw the creation of the new facility for St. Joseph Hospital (later the Creighton University Medical Center) at 30th and California streets, took the school’s enrollment over the 100-student mark, increased the medical faculty by 25 percent and democratized the governance of the school’s classes and administration.

All the while, and through his own pursuits in the arts and humanities, Holthaus maintained a keen interest in training physicians to become not only skilled practitioners and researchers, but also men and women for and with others, looking beyond the failings and pains of the flesh to the soul inside.

“You may become the best scientist in the world, and you may master the great volumes of medical information,” Holthaus said in addressing the School of Medicine’s first-year class in 1976. “But, unless you can truly love your fellow man, you will be capable of treating disease but totally incapable of relieving the suffering and the mental anguish that always accompanies that disease. The physician has a commitment. He must be dedicated to his responsibilities, to personal honesty and integrity, to knowledge and to people.”

Born in Seneca, Kansas, in 1923, Holthaus was one of nine children born to a German immigrant father. He was delivered by an uncle who fostered his interest in a medical career.

Enrolling at Creighton just as the U.S. was pulled into World War II, Holthaus went into the University’s accelerated medical program. He earned a bachelor’s degree in 1946 and, through concurrent enrollment in the School of Medicine, completed his medical degree a year later. He served a two-year internship at St. Mary’s Hospital in Kansas City, Missouri, then joined the U.S. Air Force for two years.

In 1951, Holthaus returned to Omaha and began an internal medicine residency at the Veterans Administration Hospital and joined the School of Medicine as an assistant faculty member. He joined the VA staff in 1953 and was named the hospital’s chief of medical services three years later. He became chief of staff at the hospital in 1963 and had risen to the rank of associate professor of medicine at Creighton.

With a grant from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation in 1965, the medical school created the post of associate dean and appointed Holthaus to be the first holder of that title. Five years later, at the age of 47, Holthaus was named dean of the School of Medicine, and initiated or shepherded several progressive initiatives in the school.

“Dr. Holthaus was one of those Creighton School of Medicine faculty members who embodied what is distinctive about Creighton’s Catholic, Jesuit heritage,” said the Rev. James Clifton, SJ, associate dean for mission, identity and diversity in the School of Medicine. “He passed on that tradition to countless new faculty, residents, students and hospital staff simply by his example. If you want to know what Creighton hopes to accomplish in the physicians it trains, looking at the example of Dr. Joe Holthaus is a wonderful place to start.”

At the same time he was instituting the changes, Holthaus was maintaining research pursuits in liver disease and gastroenterology, and serving as acting chair of the Department of Pathology from 1977 to 1980. He earned promotion to full professor in the Division of Gastroenterology in 1980.

After his tenure as dean, Holthaus undertook a one-year sabbatical to further his knowledge in gastroenterology and then returned to clinical medicine and medical education, remaining active in leadership positions at the Creighton University Medical Center and continuing to teach and mentor medical students until his retirement in 2002. He earned the 1986 Distinguished Service Award from the medical school in 1986 and was the 1988 School of Medicine Alumni Merit Award honoree.

Holthaus married the former Frances Meister, who survives him, in 1949 and the couple raised six children. Outside of medicine, he was a patron and practitioner of the arts, painting landscapes and playing music, including most of the brass instruments, the bass fiddle and the organ. He developed a propensity for music as a youngster, founding and leading a nine-piece orchestra in Seneca.

In a number of Creightonian articles from his time as a student, Holthaus was found playing music at local restaurants and earning a reputation as a jokester and storyteller. One piece said of him, “Joe Holthaus has had a busy life, and is planning an even busier one.”

Of the physician’s commitment he spoke of to those first-year students more than 40 years ago, the Creighton School of Medicine history book, A Century of Healing and Teaching: The First One Hundred Years of the Creighton University School of Medicine, published in 1992, noted that Holthaus had lived out such a covenant: “He has lived and continues to live up to it admirably. The Creighton School of Medicine was fortunate to have such leadership at so critical a juncture in its history.”

A rosary will be held Friday, July 27 at 10 a.m., at St. Margaret Mary Catholic Church, followed by a funeral Mass.

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