Dr. Richard Kekuni Akana Blaisdell, a pioneering advocate for Native Hawaiian health and sovereignty, combined a soft human touch with a fearless determination to lift up his people.
Blaisdell, founding chairman of the Department of Medicine at the University of Hawaii Medical School, died of respiratory failure early Friday at the Queen’s Medical Center, with family by his side. He was 90.
“He didn’t just believe in fairness and justice, he committed his whole being to it, body and soul,” said Jon Osorio, professor at the Kamakakuokalani Center for Hawaiian Studies at UH Manoa. “He felt it wasn’t enough just to think these things. You had to act. In that way he was inspirational to every single person I know.”
Blaisdell sounded the alarm on the health crisis facing kanaka maoli, or Native Hawaiians, with a groundbreaking report for the U.S. Congress Native Hawaiians Study Commission in 1983. He helped found E Ola Mau, an organization of Hawaiian health professionals, and highlighted the health needs of the islands’ indigenous people, who suffered from high rates of chronic disease.
His research and leadership ultimately led to passage of the Native Hawaiian Health Care Improvement Act, first authorized in 1988, which established Papa Ola Lokahi health care systems for Native Hawaiians on the five major islands.
“When I think of Kekuni, I always think of three things,” said Keawe‘aimoku Kaholokula, chairman of the Department of Native Hawaiian Health at the John A. Burns School of Medicine at UH.
“He was an educator, a healer and a protector — educator of our health professionals, healer of our people but also protector of our culture and modes of living as kanaka maoli,” Kaholokula said. “He was an advocate for health through self-determination.
“I think we owe a lot to him, as a physician coming out publicly for sovereignty but also realizing it was not just about biology, genetics and behaviors, it was really also about social conditions and cultural loss of our people,” Kaholokula said.
A forward-thinking organizer
Blaisdell helped restore Native Hawaiian health by reaching back to the past, with research revealing the benefits of a traditional diet and cultural practices. He pushed to get more Hawaiians, Pacific Islanders and other indigenous peoples into medical schools and health professions.
The physician spoke out in favor of sovereignty and the restoration of the Hawaiian nation long before it was fashionable. He was the convener of the Kanaka Maoli Tribunal in 1993, which took the United States to task for its actions in Hawaii, and a coordinator of Ka Pakaukau, a group of organizations seeking independence.
“He was very courageous in stepping out and encouraging others and being on the forefront even though he was often criticized for taking such a radical position,” said Mele Look, director of community engagement at the medical school. “Back then it was very unpopular.”
Blaisdell was recruited from the University of Chicago, where he was an assistant professor, to return to Hawaii in 1966 and head up the UH Department of Medicine. He served as chairman, professor of medicine and, after retiring in 2010, professor emeritus.
He was a devoted professor who mentored students throughout their careers. Blaisdell also helped establish clinical training programs in Saipan, Palau, Chuuk, Pohnpei and Okinawa.
“Dr. Blaisdell was a father of modern Hawaiian medicine and health,” said Kamana‘opono Crabbe, CEO of the Office of Hawaiian Affairs. “He brought the wisdom of our Hawaiian ancestors to the modern world and helped revive traditional healing practices. His greatest accomplishment was to bring medicine, culture and heritage and relate it to modern politics.”
A revered visionary
Blaisdell graduated from Kamehameha Schools in 1942 and received his bachelor’s degree at the University of Redlands and his Doctor of Medicine degree from the University of Chicago School of Medicine. He specialized in hematology and pathology.
At the end of his medical internship in 1951, he joined the Army, first as a field artillery battalion surgeon in Korea and later as a hospital internist in Japan. He was appointed to the U.S. Atomic Bomb Casualty Commission in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, studying the effects of radiation.
While in Japan, he adopted a war orphan, not quite 2 years old, whom he brought back to the University of Chicago, where Blaisdell was an assistant professor. There he met and married a nurse, Irene Saito, who hailed from Waimanalo.
At the UH medical school, he was looked on with near-reverence, according to Dr. Kalani Brady, associate professor of Native Hawaiian Health and Medicine. Brady called him a “team player” who was “the visionary and architect of the last generation’s advances in Native Hawaiian health.”
“Almost everyone who studied under him respected him to the point of a sort of fear, in the sense of the Old Testament’s ‘Fear the Lord,’” Brady said. “It doesn’t mean run scared from the Lord; it means respect.”
Brady had known him since he was applying to medical school and Blaisdell interviewed him on behalf of Duke University. They became lifelong friends.
“I was his kokua for several trips to Aotearoa and New Zealand and the continental U.S., and I am not alone in saying he touched people deeply,” Brady said.
A passionate mentor
Students thrived under his tutelage, and Blaisdell forged lifelong connections with them.
“Students were of premier importance to him,” said Look. “He would put aside time to teach them about everything from medical practice to Hawaiian health to cultural practices.”
“When I was an undergraduate student, he kind of picked me up and helped me with a research study I was doing and continued to mentor me for the next 30 years,” she said. “His pride was in merging Hawaiian cultural practices with health objectives.”
In 1986 Blaisdell and Na Pu‘uwai on Molokai did a study that found the traditional Native Hawaiian diet lowered blood cholesterol and triglyceride levels, reducing the risk of heart disease. That research helped seed a movement toward eating traditional foods, closer to nature, later popularized in the “Waianae diet.”
“He had a soft sense of humor,” Osorio said. “I never saw him get angry, but frequently saw him passionate. He believed the best about people.”
Blaisdell’s many honors include the Kaiser Teaching Award at the medical school; the Living Treasure Award from Honpa Hongwanji Mission of Hawaii; the Hawaiian Historical Society’s Pa‘a Mo‘olelo Award; the University of Chicago Alumni Community Service Award; Physician of the Year by the Hawaii Medical Association; and the Lifetime Achievement Award from the Asian and Pacific Islander American Health Forum.
Blaisdell is survived by son Mitch, daughter Dr. Nalani Blaisdell-Brennan and grandchildren Melissa Blaisdell, Billy Brennan, Malia Brennan and Jacob Blaisdell.
The family requests that in lieu of flowers, donations be made to the Dr. Kekuni Blaisdell Proposed Chair in Native Hawaiian Health at the medical school (account No. 127-2010-2). Checks should be made payable to the UH Foundation.