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The 'doctors' doctor,' William Reals made history in aviation pathology

October 06, 2014

By Joe Stumpe

William Reals, M.D.

A spot on his lung led Dr. William Reals into the field of pathology. By the time he retired 40 years later, that specialty and his interest in aviation helped make Reals one of the world's leading authorities on the human factors contributing to aircraft crashes.

"He was in the right place when aviation - the jet age - became a big thing," his son, Bill Reals, said. "The question was not only whether the plane failed, but whether the pilot had a heart attack, or whether a bomb was on board."

In fact, Reals found evidence of both of those scenarios, and many more, during his investigations of fatal airplane crashes. He died in 2002, having taught and served as dean of the KU School of Medicine-Wichita from 1980 to 1990.

Born in Rapid City, South Dakota, Reals graduated from high school in Denver. After the deaths of both of his parents when he was 19, he enrolled at Creighton University in Omaha, earning his bachelor's and medical degrees there.

"Tuberculosis" spurred interest in pathology

Reals enlisted in the Army while attending medical school as part of the Army Specialty Training Program. In 1945, while undergoing a physical to become a commissioned officer in the Army Medical Corps, a physical revealed a spot on his lung thought to be tuberculosis. He was sent to a hospital at Fort Riley, Kansas. Bill Reals said that's where his father became interested in pathology.

"A doctor who was the pathologist there found out he was a freshly-graduated medical student and said, 'Why don't you come down and read slides with me? That'll get you out of scrubbing floors.'"

Reals was discharged six months later, without the lesion on his lung ever developing into TB. He completed his pathology residency in Omaha and was lured to Wichita by the nuns at St. Joseph Hospital, now part of Via Christi Health, in 1950.

From the military to FAA investigations

Nine months later, with the Korean War underway, Reals volunteered for active duty with the Air Force in Texas. He served two years before returning to St. Joseph as chief pathologist.

"His family had a long tradition of military service," Bill Reals, himself a retired colonel in the U.S. Army Signal Corps, said.

Reals remained in the Air Force as a reservist, with yearly assignments from the Armed Forces Institute of Pathology in Washington, D.C., and was eventually asked to become a flight surgeon. He retired as a brigadier general in the Air Force Reserve.

In the early 1960s, the Federal Aviation Administration asked him to help investigate civilian airplane accidents. In 1961, Reals traveled to Denver after a United Airlines plane crashed on landing at Stapleton Airport, killing 17 people on board and one on the ground. Reals found that the 17 people who perished on board had been trapped and asphyxiated while trying to get out through the rear exit. If the curtain to the front compartment had been open, those passengers could have escaped through the first-class exit, he concluded. Reals' investigation led to the regulation that the curtain between compartments be kept open during takeoffs and landings.

In another crash investigation, Reals found that one victim had "a body full of metal," proving that a bomb had exploded on the aircraft, his son said.

The most famous crash Reals investigated was the March 27, 1976 collision of two jet airliners in the Canary Islands that killed 577 people - the single deadliest commercial aviation crash on record.

Reals led queries of well-known Wichita air crashes

Dr. Reals was involved in the investigations of two accidents familiar to nearly everyone in Wichita - the 1965 crash of a fuel-laden Air Force KC135 tanker in a north Wichita neighborhood that killed 30 people; and the 1970 crash of a charter plane that killed 31 Wichita State University football players, staff members, and fans in Colorado.

In the fiery tanker crash, Wichita's worst air tragedy, a temporary morgue was set up at the city-county health department to handle the bodies. Reals conducted autopsies of the seven crew members at the request of officials from McConnell Air Force Base, from where the tanker had taken off minutes before it plunged into the neighborhood at Piatt and 20th Street. The crew members all died of massive injuries, and in some cases could only be identified by their dog tags or uniform patches.

"He never really said much about it other than he said he thought the pilot was probably overloaded with fuel," Bill Reals said. "He thought the pilot was trying to stay clear of the WSU campus, because the pilot knew the thing was doomed."

A plan for responding to just such a disaster had been finalized by a group of local officials just days earlier. Dr. Reals, who was president of the Medical Society of Sedgwick County at the time, was part of the group and said the plan worked well.

"Of course, you can't really plan for a disaster because each one is different," Reals told the Topeka Capital-Journal one month after the crash.  "There will always be a great deal of improvisation, but you have to have a basic, underlying plan that everyone can work from."

In the WSU accident, Reals flew to Colorado with a colleague to conduct an autopsy of the pilot. They found that the pilot died of relatively minor injuries, considering the total destruction of the aircraft. In addition, Reals wrote at the time, the lack of injuries on the pilot's hands indicated he "probably did not have his hands on the controls at the time of impact." As was his practice, Reals also visited the site of the wreckage, making a one-hour hike up a remote mountainside and finding evidence that had been missed by earlier investigators.

Reals' frustration with the case was obvious in correspondence with federal officials, in which he noted that the pilot's body had been embalmed by a local funeral home before the autopsy could be performed, making a toxicology report "almost impossible."

"I feel we would have made a larger contribution both in the autopsy study of the pilot and also in examination of the other passengers and air crew if we had been called into the investigation much earlier," he wrote.

Records were preserved

Dr. Reals kept records of all his work - files his family recently donated to the KU School of Medicine-Wichita. The exception is the Canary Islands file, which was restricted by the U.S. government, apparently for diplomatic reasons, said Bill Reals.

Dr. Reals, a pilot himself, wrote two books on the investigation of aviation accidents. But Bill Reals said his father rarely discussed his work, and certainly not the grislier aspects of it, around the dinner table.

"He was a typical physician. He didn't come home and discuss what he'd seen with the family." The exceptions, Reals said, were cases involving babies, which Dr. Reals told his son "really eat me up."

Reals' day-to-day work included conducting thousands of autopsies at St. Joseph, including more than a few on victims of notorious crimes.

But as a pathologist, much of his time was spent analyzing tissue, blood, and body fluid samples of patients who were very much alive, and being treated by other physicians. "He used to say pathologists are the doctors' doctors," Bill Reals said.

Medical school years

Reals left St. Joseph in 1980 and moved to the KU School of Medicine-Wichita, although he continued to lecture internationally on aviation pathology and worked as a consultant to manufacturers such as Boeing and Cessna.

"He loved being around medical students," Bill Reals said. "My mother used to say the 10 years he had at the medical school were some of the most enjoyable he had. He told me, 'I'd stay here until I die, but I can't.'"

Reals met and married his wife, Norma, a native of Pittsburg, Kansas, when both were in Omaha. They loved to collect art, from Lindsborg artists Birger Sandzen and Lester Raymer, to the rugs and pottery of New Mexican native artists. The KU School of Medicine-Wichita campus dedicated the William J. Reals Gallery in his memory.

Bill Reals said his father had many interests, from ham radio, to travel, to reading and spending time with family. He also owned a farm with his father-in-law, and enjoyed spending time there. The property, Cherokee Farms, remains in the family.

Dr. Reals died in 2002. Norma Reals died in 2013.

In addition to son Bill, the Reals are survived by sons Tom and John, daughters Ann Coffey and Mary Knorp, 18 grandchildren, and five great-grandchildren.

For years after his retirement from the medical school, Dr. Reals maintained an office where he would occasionally go and read his mail, his son said.

"He'd go up and sit in his office. He said, 'I miss it all.'"

KU School of Medicine-Wichita
Last modified: Aug 25, 2018
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