Vainutis Vaitkevicius, M.D., professor emeritus of Oncology and of Internal Medicine for the Wayne State University School of Medicine, died Dec. 24. He was 90.
“Dr. Vee,” as he was known to generations of physicians, residents, students and patients, retired in 2016, capping a 60-year career as a devoted medical researcher, educator and physician. Considered by many the architect of Detroit’s reputation as a leading center for cancer treatment, his findings forever changed oncology care for millions of patients around the world.
“We have lost a leading light in pioneering oncology research and treatment,” Dean Jack D. Sobel, M.D., said in announcing Dr. Vaitkevicius’s death.
“Above all else, his life was defined by his perseverance and compassion, which was shaped by the immense hardships he and his family endured; but more importantly by the people who stood in defiant contrast to the savage turmoil which surrounded them,” Dr. Vaitkevicius’s family said. “People who celebrated life, who held a great faith and who shared the deepest sense of compassion.”
According to his family, Dr. Vaitkevicius, dreamed of becoming a classical pianist and was educated by Jesuits in Kaunas, Lithuania. His father, Henrikas Vaitkevicius, an architectural engineer, died in forced exile in the Ural Mountains after an arrest for his political convictions. His mother, Kamilija Zakaviciute, a nurse, spent years in Siberian labor camps protecting his brothers and mourning her husband’s death.
On June 14, 1941, Dr. Vaitkevicius was separated from his family when he narrowly escaped mass arrests organized by the KGB that led to the exile of the rest of his family. He was sheltered by his grandfather, Vytautas Zakavicius, a trained physician and botanist. His grandfather was later executed by the Nazis after he was found to have hidden Jewish children.
Dr. Vaitkevicius later lived with his aunt, Dr. Jadvyga Zakaviciute, a prominent physician in Lithuania. To avoid ongoing forced conscriptions by the Nazis, she fictitiously diagnosed her nephew with tuberculosis and hid him in a quarantine ward.
By the end of 1944, Dr. Vaitkevicius was in a Lithuanian refugee camp outside of Frankfurt, Germany, where he was instrumental in establishing a secondary school for Lithuanian refugees. During this period, he injured his hand, ending his dream of a career as a classical pianist.
He then enrolled in a seminary, but changed course once again when he met his future wife, Ingeborg Jansen.
After earning his medical degree from J.W. Goeth University in Frankfurt, Germany, in 1951, Dr. Vaitkevicius began his internship at Grace Hospital in Detroit. He served in the United States Army (1953 to 1955) and then began his residency at Grace Hospital. He also completed a residency at Detroit Receiving Hospital. In 1958, he was awarded a fellowship in medical oncology at the Detroit Institute of Cancer Research, the forerunner of the Barbara Ann Karmanos Cancer Institute.
In 1968, he was appointed clinical director of the Detroit Institute for Cancer Research and established the Milton A. Darling Memorial Clinical Cancer Research Center, a clinical facility that accommodated up to 18 inpatients, a small outpatient clinic and a small laboratory for clinical studies.
A charter member of the WSU Academy of Scholars, Dr. Vaitkevicius was appointed professor of Internal Medicine in 1972. He was named chief of Oncology for Harper-Grace Hospital in 1977, and in 1978 was named associate director for Clinical Activities at the Comprehensive Cancer Center of Metropolitan Detroit. In 1982, when Wayne State University’s Division of Oncology was merged with the Department of Internal Medicine, he was named chair, and later served as chair of WSU’s Department of Oncology.
He served as president of the Michigan Cancer Foundation in 1991, and in 1995 played a pivotal role in establishing the Barbara Ann Karmanos Cancer Institute. He later served as interim president of KCI, and continued to treat patients until his retirement.
Named a Michiganian of the Year by The Detroit News and a Health Care Hero by Crain’s Detroit Business, Dr. Vaitkevicius was widely recognized for his work and career. His many awards included Best Clinical Teacher of the Year from WSU, the Life Award from the American Cancer Society of Metropolitan Detroit, the National Jewish Federation’s Tree of Life Award and the Hospice Humanitarian Award from Hospice of Southeast Michigan. He was appointed to the National Cancer Advisory Board by President Bill Clinton.
He established the Dr. Vainutis Vaitkevicius Endowed Chair in Cancer Research at KCI.
Dr. Vaitkevicius was preceded in death by his wife, Ingeborg. He is survived by his daughters, Eva Marks and Camille, and his sons, Henrikas, Peter, Walter and Martin.
Visitation was held Jan. 1 at William Sullivan & Son Funeral Directors, 705 W. 11 Mile Road in Royal Oak. A funeral Mass was celebrated Jan. 2 at St. Mary's Catholic Church in Royal Oak.
The family has requested that memorial donations be made to the Barbara Ann Karmanos Cancer Institute.