Champion of Patients

Hero Next Door: Remembering a beloved physician, mentor, activist

Jeffrey J. Patterson, DO, of Madison, Wis., was regarded as a great teacher whose quiet demeanor belied strong convictions.


His friends remember him as a great listener and a great teacher—a warm, easygoing, yet eloquent individual with a ready smile and a keen sense of humor. His quiet demeanor belied strong convictions and endless energy.

Jeffrey J. Patterson, DO, who twice served as the president of Physicians for Social Responsibility (PSR), died unexpectedly of a heart attack on Jan. 24, at age 67. “He was an inspiration, a mentor and a great friend and colleague to many,” says Catherine Thomasson, MD, PSR’s executive director.

A 1972 graduate of the Kirksville (Mo.) College of Osteopathic Medicine, Dr. Patterson was the first osteopathic physician to serve a family medicine residency at the University of Wisconsin (UW) School of Medicine and Public Health in Madison. After completing his residency, he joined the university’s family medicine faculty, rising through the ranks to become a full professor.

Thanks to Dr. Patterson’s “energy, motivation and initiative,” UW’s family medicine residency became one of the first dually accredited residency programs in the country, says William E. Schwab, MD, the university’s vice chairman of family medicine. Today, DOs practice and train at all four of the residency’s clinics, and osteopathic manipulative treatment is held in high regard throughout the program, Dr. Schwab notes.

Dr. Patterson was also an internationally known expert in prolotherapy, a process designed to alleviate musculoskeletal pain in which certain aqueous solutions are injected into ligaments and tendons, triggering an immune response that rebuilds connective-tissue fibers. He lectured on prolotherapy in Europe and Asia, conducted research on the intervention, and led prolotherapy-focused medical missions in Honduras and Mexico as the medical director of the Hackett Hemwall Foundation.

Integrating both osteopathic manipulative treatment and prolotherapy into his practice, Dr. Patterson trained numerous residents and practicing physicians in these techniques and had many loyal patients, says Dr. Schwab, who practiced with Dr. Patterson at UW’s Northeast Family Medical Center in Madison for almost 30 years.

“As an osteopathic physician, Jeff was just phenomenal—I experienced this firsthand because he worked on me a lot,” Dr. Schwab says. “He was a master anatomist, with a profound knowledge of the body and how it works, which informed both the osteopathic manipulation and the prolotherapy he did.”

Putting patients first

Although a leader in the various realms of his professional life, Dr. Patterson always put patients first, his colleagues agree.

“Jeff was an incredibly genuine, caring physician who had many longtime patients, some of whom had been seeing him for almost 40 years,” Dr. Schwab says. “When you were in his presence, you received his complete attention and care, compassion, intelligence and skills.”

One of Dr. Patterson’s special interests was transgender medicine. “He saw an area that didn’t receive the attention that was needed and decided to learn more about it,” Dr. Schwab recalls. “He became one of the first physicians in the state to whom people were referred for [gender reassignment] assessment and hormonal therapy.”

But he also was a primary care physician to patients of all ages and practiced obstetrics for many years. “He was a great core clinician and a great core teacher,” Dr. Schwab says.

Another family medicine colleague, David P. Rabago, MD, remembers Dr. Patterson as a good friend, a mentor and much-missed research collaborator in prolotherapy.

“Jeff was remarkably patient, incredibly kind and generous with his time,” Dr. Rabago says, noting that Dr. Patterson likely mentored more than 1,000 physicians in prolotherapy and other aspects of medical care. “He was also very sharp—someone who could cut through the noise and home in on what was most important very quickly.”

The Hackett Hemwall medical missions reflected Dr. Patterson’s love of teaching, as well as his desire to reach out to the medically underserved, many of whom have chronic musculoskeletal pain that prolotherapy can alleviate, according to Dr. Rabago, who accompanied Dr. Patterson on missions in Honduras and Mexico. During the three-week missions, Dr. Patterson and typically 100-plus physician volunteers, eager to learn from the master prolotherapist, would treat thousands of patients.

Seen here in 1996 in front of Chernobyl, Jeffrey J. Patterson, DO, participated in several physician exchanges with Russia in the wake of the 1986 accident at the nuclear power plant.

“Jeff did these trips because he saw a tremendous need and the opportunity to put what he knew to good use,” Dr. Rabago says. “He inspired many physicians to embrace the notion that we have to go out and treat patients, not wait for them to come to us.”

Environmental health activism

Though never bellicose about his convictions, Dr. Patterson strongly believed that physicians should advocate for patients beyond the examination room.

“Physicans are in a unique position of influence because we take care of politicians and policymakers,” Dr. Patterson told The DO in a 2007 article describing his activism.

It was his leadership in Physicians for Social Responsibility that set him apart from most other osteopathic physicians. Of PSR’s 3,000-plus physician members, just 2% to 3% are DOs.

The U.S. affiliate of International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War (IPPNW), PSR opposes both nuclear weapons and nuclear power and is concerned about other environmental issues, such as global warming and water quality.

“Jeff felt that nuclear weapons were a grave threat to the existence of humanity on earth,” says PSR board member Alfred C. Meyer, a former executive director of the organization’s Wisconsin chapter, which Dr. Patterson co-founded in 1983. But Dr. Patterson was also greatly concerned about the potential health risks posed by nuclear power plants.

“He absolutely believed that there is no safe dose of radiation,” Meyer says. “He oftentimes talked about how we are taking part in a nonconsensual and very poorly done human study that would never pass an institutional review board. We have not consented to being irradiated.”

As an IPPNW commission representative, Dr. Patterson traveled to the former Soviet Union some 20 times. After the Chernobyl nuclear power plant accident in April 1986, he participated in several physician exchanges with Russia and lectured in many countries on the health hazards of nuclear radiation.

The year before the Chernobyl accident, the IPPNW had won the Nobel Peace Prize for drawing worldwide attention to the dangers of nuclear weapons and helping to persuade then-Soviet prime minister Mikhail Gorbachev to work toward ending the Cold War.

Twenty-five years after Chernobyl, the accident at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant in Japan seized Dr. Patterson’s attention. In the aftermath of this disaster, Dr. Patterson took part in conferences and media interviews on the potential cumulative hazards of the released radiation.

“Jeff remained very concerned about the long-term effects of Fukushima, which have been downplayed and minimized, as well as the potential for similar nuclear accidents to occur in the future,” Meyer says.

Never afraid to speak up for what he believed in, Dr. Patterson also listened respectfully to all sides of an argument, according to Meyer. “And he was very generous. He contributed finances and his intellectual resources to so many groups and efforts.”

But what struck Meyer most of all was Dr. Patterson’s penchant for addressing underlying problems.

“Jeff embodied the philosophy that it’s not enough to fix a problem,” Meyer explains. “You need to go upstream and stop the problem at its source.”

Trusted confidant

Dr. Patterson told The DO in 2007 that he attributed his activism in large part to his upbringing and the early influence of osteopathic medicine. He grew up in Mediapolis, Iowa, where his father, the late H.M. Patterson, DO, practiced family medicine from 1937 until retiring in 1992. Both his father and his mother, a registered nurse, were involved in local civic organizations. Dr. Patterson also had an uncle who was an osteopathic family physician in Colorado. Influenced by the whole patient approach to care, as well as the notion of civic responsibility, from a very young age, Dr. Patterson began to develop an understanding of societal problems and how to address them.

Like his brother, Michael M. Patterson, PhD, who was four years older, Dr. Patterson attended Grinnell (Iowa) College, which is known for rigorous academics and a tradition of social responsibility. “I wouldn’t be surprised if some of his environmental and humanitarian interests were nurtured at Grinnell, which is certainly a very liberal, progressive place,” Dr. Michael Patterson says.

Because of their age difference, the two brothers had different sets of friends growing up and lived apart during most of their teenage years. They became closer as adults because of shared professional interests and the fact that Dr. Michael Patterson was on the faculty at Kirksville College when Dr. Jeffrey Patterson studied there.

“We came to appreciate each other more during the year we overlapped in Kirksville,” says Dr. Patterson, an associate editor of The Journal of the American Osteopathic Association. “Before that, I had always looked on him as my ‘little rat’ kid brother. Getting to know him professionally was a really different experience. I came to regard him as a peer rather than a little brother.”

The brothers stayed in close touch over the years, as Dr. Michael Patterson taught at several osteopathic medical schools, eventually joining the faculty of the Nova Southeastern University College of Osteopathic Medicine in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., and Dr. Jeffrey Patterson interned at the former Detroit Osteopathic Hospital and then moved to Wisconsin, where he remained for the rest of his career.

What Dr. Michael Patterson misses most of all about his only sibling are their conversations and the fact that he could phone his brother at any time and confide in him.

“I am missing most the ability to call Jeff and talk to him about anything that I might have concerns about because he always had good advice and he was never judgmental,” Dr. Michael Patterson says. “I think he felt he could talk to me and I felt I could talk to him about anything.

“Although I tended to be more conservative than Jeff, he taught me a lot about climate change and the dangers of nuclear weapons and power plants that I never would have thought that much about. He goaded me into thinking more carefully about these issues, and I will miss our discussions.

“But what I’m missing the most is just the ability to call him up and chat.”

Editor’s note: This article was updated March 11, 2015, to remove a broken link.


  1. Brian Ray

    Jeff was the best doctor I ever had. He will be dearly missed.It’s people like him that make this world a better place.

    1. Melisa

      You’re spot on. I miss him too. I worked with him as an “old nurse” joining the practice at 39 years old. He taught me so much and his legacy lives on through his mentor ship. Take good care.

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