UF pediatric disease expert, master teacher, passes away

William Henry “Bill” Donnelly Jr., M.D., University of Florida pediatric pathologist

A longtime University of Florida pediatric pathologist and master teacher has passed away. William Henry “Bill” Donnelly Jr., M.D., died peacefully Sept. 30 after a yearlong battle with a brain tumor. He was 76.

“We have lost a great friend, colleague and teacher,” said College of Medicine Dean Michael L. Good, M.D. “With his passing we have lost the wisdom he possessed and shared, and the special touch he had when dealing with childhood diseases and the people whose lives were affected by them.”

Donnelly came to UF in 1971, and was a professor in both the department of pathology, immunology and laboratory medicine and the department of pediatrics.

Born in Jersey City, N.J., Donnelly earned his bachelor’s degree from the College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Mass., and his medical degree from the University of Ottawa in Ontario, Canada. He served as a lieutenant commander in the U.S. Naval Submarine Medical Program during and after medical school, and completed his residency in pathology and subspecialty training in pediatric pathology at Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh.

His clinical interests involved congenital and acquired heart disease in infants and children, perinatal pathology, multiple malformation syndromes, renal disease, pediatric solid tumors and sudden unexpected death in adults and children.

“Dr. Donnelly had a very strong commitment to children’s health,” said Michael Clare-Salzler, M.D., chair of the department of pathology, immunology and laboratory medicine and the Stetson professor in experimental pathology. “As a pediatric pathologist, his work in childhood diseases, including cancer, gave him a special connection with children, which brought out his tremendous empathy and concern.”

Donnelly was known among both students and colleagues as a passionate, enthusiastic teacher. The high esteem in which he was held by his peers and his students is demonstrated in the awards and honors he received for teaching and clinical practice, and the national offices to which he was elected. He won the UF College of Medicine “Teacher of the Year” and “Outstanding Basic Science Teacher” awards and the pediatrics department “Outstanding Teacher” award. In 1994 he was honored by the Florida Association for Pediatric Tumor Programs for 20 years of service to children with tumors, and in 2000 he was also honored for 20 years of service by the Pediatric Oncology Group, a clinical trial consortium. In 1995, he was honored with the “Distinguished Colleague Award” by the Society for Pediatric Pathology.

Highly regarded by colleagues around the country, Donnelly was elected president of the Society of Pediatric Pathology in 1991. He represented the society in the development and approval of the Special Qualification in Pediatric Pathology by the American Board of Pathology. He played a significant role in efforts aimed at international standardization of medical terminology, serving on the Systematized Nomenclature of Medicine, or SNOMED, committee of the College of American Pathologists and helping to advance the system. He authored the SNOMED Pediatric Microglossary with Curt Buchholz, M.D.

His aptitude with computers led to his work to help develop the pathology department’s first software system to generate pathology reports. That system was used from 1977 to 1995.

Donnelly served on the UF Faculty Senate and on several College of Medicine, university and hospital committees aimed at improving medical education and patient care. He was also a member of the Governor’s State Task Force to Review Child Deaths, and an associate medical examiner in Florida’s District 8 from 2002-2012.

In 2005, Donnelly became professor emeritus and attempted — but failed — retirement, his colleagues joked. He continued practicing and teaching residents through 2011.

Dr. Donnelly’s love of teaching and medicine was exceeded only by his love for his family and good jazz music, his friends said. Donnelly was on the board of Friends of Jazz and enjoyed singing at Leonardo’s 706 and at any gathering.

“He was a superb singer — his style of singing reminded me of Mel Tormé,” said Edward Wilkinson, M.D., vice chair of the pathology department, who was a colleague and friend of Donnelly’s. “He would put on his dark suit and stand by the piano and sing.”

He was also very interested in sports, including basketball, track and field, and swimming, and he served as a volunteer physician for the UF swim team for 10 years. His friends say he embodied the Jesuit philosophy to educate and serve others, and that he lived life with passion and brought joy to all around.

Around UF and the College of Medicine, Dr. Donnelly was known as someone who would go out of his way to help others.

“He would help people get to work or even bring food over to someone who was unable to get what he or she needed. Or he would intercede for someone and call to get help,” Wilkinson said. “He was very unique in that respect. He was a very conscientious person and took the role of being physician in a very serious way.”

That quality was on display even near the end.

“He made the effort to come into the hospital even when he was quite ill, to assist faculty and staff to make sure that there were no loose ends,” said Wilkinson, his voice cracking. “He was determined that if he could close any loose ends he would. He was a very special person and we’re going to miss him. There’s nobody like him.”

Donnelly is survived by his wife of 48 years, Michelle Emond Donnelly; son, Christopher Donnelly; daughter, Carolyn “Sam” Donnelly (Ellsworth) Remson; grandchildren, Bailey and Hunter Remson; brother, David Donnelly; one niece and five nephews.

A vigil and funeral services were held Oct. 3 and Oct. 4, respectively, at Holy Faith Catholic Church in Gainesville.

Donations in Donnelly’s honor may be given to the Ronald McDonald House of Gainesville or The Blue Ridge School.