In memoriam: Dr. Carl Gunnar Blomquist

Dr. Carl Gunnar Blomquist, a cardiologist whose interest in the effects of exercise and deconditioning on circulation led him to international prominence as an expert on the cardiovascular adaptations to spaceflight, died March 5 of heart failure at Traymore Nursing Center in Dallas. He was 79.

Dr. Blomquist earned a medical degree from Lund University in his native Sweden and a doctorate from the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm. He completed a fellowship in cardiovascular epidemiology at the University of Minnesota and was a “preventive cardiologist” before the term became fashionable.

Dr. Blomquist was recruited to UT Southwestern in the mid-1960s, a time when heart attack patients were put on three to five weeks of strict bed rest and then told to limit physical activity – even to the point of retraining themselves for less strenuous jobs, said Dr. Jere Mitchell, professor of internal medicine and physiology and a colleague of Dr. Blomquist. Together, they researched what happened to normal subjects who rested in bed for several weeks and then underwent eight weeks of intensive exercise training. This study received wide acclaim and is now known as the Dallas Bed-Rest and Training Study.

Dr. Carl Gunnar Blomquist

“It led to changes in how doctors treat heart attack patients when they are in the hospital and afterward in cardiac rehabilitation,” Dr. Mitchell said.

After this pivotal study, Dr. Blomquist focused his research on gravity’s effects on the cardiovascular system. As director of NASA’s Specialized Center of Research and Training at UT Southwestern, he was the principal investigator of numerous studies that took place on the Space Shuttle, as well as the Russian space station Mir, and sent three of his UT Southwestern trainees and faculty members into space as NASA payload specialists.

A significant part of Dr. Blomquist’s legacy included attracting talent and cultivating achievement in others. Those he mentored include Dr. Peter Snell, associate professor of internal medicine. Their work in the early 1980s, when Dr. Snell was a postdoctoral researcher, found that heart performance depends on the blood flow of muscles, and that the relationship is strongest in trained individuals.

“He was very smart without the big ego,” Dr. Snell said. “He was gentle and always helpful; productive and an innovative thinker.”

Dr. Blomquist also mentored Dr. Benjamin Levine, professor of internal medicine at
UT Southwestern and director of the Institute for Exercise and Environmental Medicine.

“His brilliant, analytical mind and warm, gentlemanly demeanor endeared him to all who knew him among the community of spacefaring nations, where he is considered one of the giants in the field of space medicine,” Dr. Levine said. “I couldn’t wait for our Friday lab meetings when Gunnar would sit around with the staff and trainees and discuss some aspect of physiology; I always learned something and left the meetings hungering for more. I feel privileged to have studied under him, both for his physiological insights and his extraordinary clinical skill with ECG reading and exercise testing.”

Dr. Blomquist’s honors included the Citation Award of the American College of Sports Medicine in 1987, the Jeffries Medical Research Award of the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics in 1992, and the Louis H. Bauer Founders Award of the Aerospace Medical Association in 1995. Dr. Blomquist was the first holder of the Alfred W. Harris, M.D., Professorship in Cardiology at UT Southwestern.

He is survived by his wife, Joan; daughter, Polly McKeithen of Dallas; son, Peter Blomquist of Houston; sister, Margareta Sjöstem of Gothenburg, Sweden; brother, Sven Blomquist of Lindesberg, Sweden; and five grandchildren.

Memorials may be made to Southwestern Medical Foundation or St. Michael and All Angels Episcopal Church.

— LaKisha Ladson

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Dr. Levine holds the Distinguished Professorship in Exercise Sciences.

Dr. Mitchell holds the S. Roger and Carolyn P. Horchow Chair in Cardiac Research.

March 13-20, 2011 /