In an undated image provided by Sue Coppa, Paul Auerbach in 2019. Auerbach, an emergency care physician who pioneered the field of wilderness medicine in the 1980s and then taught ways to heal people injured by the unpredictable, died on June 23, 2021, at his home in Los Altos, Calif. He was 70. (Sue Coppa via The New York Times) -- NO SALES; FOR EDITORIAL USE ONLY WITH NYT STORY OBIT AUERBACH BY ALEX VADUKUL FOR JULY 19, 2021. ALL OTHER USE PROHIBITED. --

Dr. Paul Auerbach, an emergency-care physician who pioneered the field of wilderness medicine in the 1980s and then taught ways to heal people injured by the unpredictable, died June 23 at his home in Los Altos, California. He was 70.

His wife, Sherry, said the cause was brain cancer.

Out in the wild, knowing how to treat a venomous snakebite or a gangrenous infection can mean the difference between life and death. In the 1970s, however, the specialized field of health care known as wilderness medicine was still in its infancy. Then Auerbach showed up.

A medical student at Duke University at the time, he went to work in 1975 with the Indian Health Service on a Native American reservation in Montana, and the experience was revelatory.

“We saw all kinds of cases that I would have never seen at Duke or frankly anywhere else except on the reservation,” Auerbach said in a recent interview given to Stanford University, where he worked for many years. “Snakebites. Drowning. Lightning strike.”

“And I just thoroughly enjoyed it,” he continued. “Taking care of people with very limited resources.”

Back at Duke, he tried to learn more about outdoor medicine, but he struggled to find resource material.

“I kept going back to literature to read, but there was no literature,” he said. “If I wanted to read about snakebites, I was all over the place. If I wanted to read about heat illness, I was all over the place. So I thought, ‘Huh, maybe I’ll do a book on wilderness medicine.’”

Auerbach started researching material for the book in 1978, when he began his medical residency at UCLA, finding the time to do so despite grueling 12-hour hospital shifts. He collected information about how to treat burn wounds, hypothermia, frostbite and lighting injuries. He interviewed hikers, skiers and divers. And he assigned chapters to doctors who were passionate about the outdoors.

The resulting book, “Management of Wilderness and Environmental Emergencies,” which he edited with a colleague, Edward Geehr, was published in 1983 and is widely considered the definitive textbook in the field, with sections such as “Protection From Blood-Feeding Arthropods” and “Aerospace Medicine: The Vertical Frontier.” Updated by Auerbach over 30 years, it is in its seventh edition and now titled “Auerbach’s Wilderness Medicine.”

“Paul literally conceived of this subspecialty of medicine,” said Dr. Andra Blomkalns, chair of emergency medicine at Stanford. “At the time, there wasn’t a recognition that things happen when you’re out doing things. He developed this notion of ‘Things happen to people all the time.’ Which is now a big part of our identity in emergency medicine.”

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