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Originally published July 5, 2010 at 8:28 PM | Page modified July 6, 2010 at 8:27 AM

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Dr. Clement Finch, 'Mr. Iron' at UW, dies at 94

Dr. Clement A. Finch, a pioneering hematologist whose research on iron helped improve nutrition and led to advances in diagnosing and treating anemia, died June 28 at his home in the La Jolla neighborhood of San Diego. He was 94.

The New York Times

Dr. Clement A. Finch, a pioneering hematologist whose research on iron helped improve nutrition and led to advances in diagnosing and treating anemia, died June 28 at his home in the La Jolla neighborhood of San Diego. He was 94.

His death, less than a week before his 95th birthday, was confirmed by his wife, Genia.

Dr. Finch was the first chief of hematology at the University of Washington, from 1949 to 1981, and he remained on the faculty there for more than 60 years. His research helped define iron metabolism — how the body acquires, uses, stores and loses iron, which is essential to the formation of the oxygen-carrying pigments: hemoglobin in the blood and myoglobin in the muscles.

"He was Mr. Iron," said Dr. James Cook, an emeritus professor of medicine at the University of Kansas who worked with Dr. Finch for many years. "He put his stamp on every aspect of iron metabolism."

Dr. Finch's interest in hematology began when he was a medical student at the University of Rochester in the late 1930s. At the time, doctors could detect iron-deficiency anemia, but they knew little about how often it occurred or the principles of iron metabolism.

Dr. Finch used radioisotopes to measure the body's production of red cells and their life span. Findings from these and other experiments provided insight into how iron is incorporated in hemoglobin and helped doctors detect different types of anemia more accurately.

Other studies conducted by Dr. Finch described how the body tried to maintain adequate stores of iron despite losses through menstruation and significant bleeding.

He also played a crucial role in showing that hemochromatosis, a genetic disease that causes the body to absorb too much iron from food, could be treated through periodic bleeding. The excess iron can damage the heart, liver and pancreas.

In his research, Dr. Finch often drew his own blood and occasionally even stuck needles into his breastbone, or sternum, to obtain samples of the marrow, the hollowed area in bone that produces blood cells. "We'd do things on ourselves before we would want to do it on a patient," he said in an interview more than 20 years ago.

Dr. Finch's studies formed a basis for what became standard tests for anemia and led to a classification system that emphasized the importance of abnormalities in iron metabolism.

Through his work and that of others, Dr. Finch said, scientists now know more about the metabolism of iron in the body than of any other metal.

Clement Alfred Finch was born on July 4, 1915, in Broadalbin, N.Y., where his father and paternal grandfather were physicians. He occasionally tagged along with his father on house calls. He graduated from Union College in 1936 and earned his medical degree at the University of Rochester in 1941.

After he trained at hospitals in Boston, the Army rejected him for service in World War II because he needed to recuperate from pneumonia. So he focused his research on a military need: lengthening the time that blood could be stored for transfusions. He continued that research after he moved to Seattle, lured here in part because of his love for mountain climbing.

Dr. Finch drew on his climbing experience one day when he forgot the keys to his office. In a paper for the American Society of Hematology, Dr. John Adamson, one of Dr. Finch's trainees, said that his mentor solved the problem by scaling the walls of the building to enter through a window.

His adventuresome spirit took him to remote areas to do research. On a trip to the Amazon, he studied the effects of snake venom on the blood system.

Dr. Finch married three times and divorced twice.

In addition to his wife, he is survived by two children from his first marriage, Clifton, of Olympia, and Carin Finch Barber, of Nunam Iqua, Alaska; two children from his third marriage, Dr. Lisa Finch and Dr. Derel Finch, both of Seattle; and three grandchildren.

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