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Dr. Hans R. Wilhelmsen, respected plastic surgeon who emigrated from Norway and put himself through school, dies

Dr. Hans Richard Wilhelmsen grew up in Norway, hopped a boat to the United States and put himself through medical school driving a taxi and working at a local shipyard. He went on to become a respected plastic surgeon providing relief for people with serious ailments.
Dr. Hans Richard Wilhelmsen grew up in Norway, hopped a boat to the United States and put himself through medical school driving a taxi and working at a local shipyard. He went on to become a respected plastic surgeon providing relief for people with serious ailments.

Dr. Hans Richard Wilhelmsen, a retired chief plastic surgeon at four hospitals who in his 40 years of working assisted patients who suffered disfiguring injuries, died of heart failure Oct. 9 at his Lutherville home. He was 91.

Born in Tonsberg, Norway he was the son of Pauli Wilhelmsen, a sea captain, and his wife Ruth Vieby. He was raised on Tjoma Island at the mouth of the Oslo fjord. He recalled his World War II childhood and taking a radio that had been confiscated by the German army that occupied Norway. He listened to British broadcasts secretly and hid the radio in his mother’s sewing basket. He also remembered how captured Russian soldiers were held near his home.

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After the war he became a deckhand on a ship and crossed the Atlantic. He suffered from acute seasickness and decided on the spot that he was not cut out to be a mariner. He left the ship at Marcus Hook, Pennsylvania and found his way to Rehoboth Beach, Delaware where he set ten pins in a bowling alley.

He then came to Baltimore with little money and found work as an office boy at the U.S. Fidelity & Guaranty Co. on Calvert Street in downtown Baltimore. He spoke little English but his coworkers drew pictures to help him make deliveries.

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A mentor, Ernest Whitty, helped him get an education at what was then Loyola College. The Jesuit Fathers allowed to him to take the entrance examination twice despite the fact he had never completed high school in Norway. He went on to graduate from the school.

“Dr. Wilhelmsen had a great love for Loyola College. As he told the story, Loyola took a chance on him and he became a star student. As a University we are proud of Hans and grateful for his consistent and generous support. As president I relied on his wise counsel and I am honored to call him a friend,” said the Rev. Brian F. Linnane, a member pf the Society of Jesus and the university’s president.

Dr. Wilhelmsen went on to graduate from the University of Maryland Dental School. In his senior year, he heard Dr. Milton Edgerton, a pioneering plastic surgeon, speak on cleft palate surgery. The talk inspired Dr. Wilhelmsen to pursue a medical degree.

He told friends he walked across Greene Street from the dental school to the medical school and continued his education.

Dr. Wilhelmsen also trained at the University of Pittsburgh on a plastic surgery internship. He studied hand and face reconstruction.

“His patients often were involved in car accidents,” said his wife Leah F. Gealy. “He also did cleft lip and palate babies after he came back to Baltimore.”

He paid for his education by trimming wallpaper at the old Sears store on North Avenue at Harford Road. He drove a Yellow Cab, No. 444, after working a daytime shift at the Bethlehem Steel Key Highway Shipyard. After dental school, he worked for Dr. Jack Brody at his Harford dental office..

Speaking of this part of his life, he said, “I drilled, filled, and billed.”

He went into plastic surgery and initially had an office at the Medical Arts Building in Mount Vernon. He initially worked with Dr. C. Parke Scarborough. He was in private practice in Towson for 40 years and became chief of plastic surgery at St. Joseph, Maryland General, Kernan, and Mercy hospitals.

He worked at Kernan Hospital near Dickeyville and established a specialty in cleft palate and facial surgery and treated new-born babies and children. He established a clinic and worked alongside a speech pathologist and other medical professionals in his field. He traveled with his clinic colleagues to distant parts of the state to see patients who later came to Baltimore for their surgery.

“Hans did some of the first cranial-facial surgeries in this area," said Dr. Paul N. Manson, a former Johns Hopkins chief of plastic surgery. “He had a natural ability to get along with patients, some of whom could be critical and rough. I used to bring him in to teach to our residents. He was a good clinician, worked hard and he was charming.”

An annual lecture on the cranial-facial sciences is held annually in his name by the Johns Hopkins and University of Maryland. He was a past president of the John Staige Davis Society.

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Dr. Wilhelmsen bought a rundown cattle farm, Sunnybrook Farm in Phoenix, and improved the property. He brought in three buffalo from Colorado. The herd increased to 21. He invited school children to visit his place.

“He liked to go there after a long day of surgery,” said his wife. "He built a gazebo and he said, “I can talk to the buffalo because they don’t talk back.”

In addition to his wife of 22 years, a retired accountant; survivors include a daughter, Kirsten W. Greenwell and a son, Hans R. Wilhelmsen Jr., both of Phoenix in Baltimore County; two stepsons, Ray C. Faust III of Princeton, New Jersey and and Paul C. Faust of LaFayette, California; and nine grandchildren.

Services were held Oct. 17 at Timonium United Methodist Church.

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