UW's John J. Bonica Was Known As `Pain Relief's Founding Father'

How do you spell "relief" from chronic pain?

Many spell it "B-O-N-I-C-A," as in John J. Bonica, M.D., founding director of University of Washington's multidisciplinary pain clinic.

Time magazine went further, calling the Sicily native "pain relief's founding father."

Dr. Bonica, 77, who died of a stroke Monday while visiting Minnesota's Mayo Clinic, not only pioneered anesthesiology techniques but also the study of the causes and cures of pain.

"My dad's Sicilian heritage had a lot to do with who he was," said his son, John Bonica of Winthrop, Okanogan County, mentioning Dr. Bonica's abiding love for people, nature, the sea and harmonic connections among them all.

"His dad's early death, which forced him to fend for himself and work odd jobs to support the family, also contributed to it."

The son said Dr. Bonica's "heightened sense of responsibility to people" filled him with a drive to find solutions to their pain. "He was so focused. He had an ability to concentrate his intellect and all his attention on his work."

Yet Dr. Bonica loved the water, which he'd practically grown up in, before his family emigrated to New York in 1928. He swam or water-skied near his Mercer Island home every chance he got. He also often took his wife Emma, who died last month, to Hawaii.

Swimming not only refreshed Dr. Bonica's spirit: It also gave relief from the intense back, shoulder and hip pain he suffered in later years - the legacy of a wrestling career that had helped send him through medical school.

He had taken up amateur wrestling in high school and won both city and state championships. Later, as "The Masked Marvel," he won the title of light-heavyweight wrestling champion of the world.

He was inducted into the Army after earning his medical degree and completing his residency, and was sent to Fort Lewis, where at 27 he was named chief of anesthesiology at Madigan Hospital.

There he developed regional pain blocks for surgery and methods of pain relief that helped thousands of wounded soldiers.

In 1947, Dr. Bonica became director of anesthesiology at Tacoma General Hospital, and in 1953 he wrote the text "The Management of Pain," still used in medical schools.

In 1960, he founded and for 18 years headed the UW anesthesiology department in the School of Medicine. He also created the first multidisciplinary pain clinic, emulated worldwide.

And in 1973, he called the first international symposium on pain and its management, which led to creation of the International Association for the Study of Pain.

Awards and honors were legion, and many lectureships and fellowships bear his name.

"John Bonica, more than any man I know of," said current pain-clinic director John Loeser, "made a difference in the world around him. Almost single-handedly he made doctors and the government care about the importance of pain."

But what really moved this passionately committed man, said his son, was the beauty, the awesome mystery of creation. "It moved him to tears more than once."

Other survivors include his daughters, Angela DeSimone and Charlotte Bonica, Mercer Island, and Linda Bonica, New York City; his daughter-in-law, Laura, Winthrop; his sister, Elizabeth Rando, Tacoma; and four grandchildren.

Visitation is from noon to 7:30 p.m. tomorrow at Butterworth-Manning-Ashmore Funeral Home, 300 E. Pine St., with a vigil afterward. A Mass of Christian burial will be at 11 a.m. Monday at St. Monica Catholic Church, 4301 88th Ave. S.E., Mercer Island.

Remembrances may be made to the John J. and Emma Bonica Endowed Chair for Anesthesiology and Pain Research, UW School of Medicine, or to the John J. Bonica Trainee Fellowship Fund, International Association for the Study of Pain, 909 N.E. 43rd St., Suite 306, Seattle, WA 98105.