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Donald Duane Van Fossan

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Posted: Tuesday, November 20, 2018 3:00 pm

Donald Duane Van Fossan, MD-PhD, 89, of Springfield, passed away with a smile on his face at 1:34 a.m. on Nov. 11, 2018, at St. John’s Hospital in Springfield, Illinois.  

Don was born January 5, 1929, in El Paso, Texas, the son of Harvey and Marie Davenport Van Fossan. He married Eloise Pickering on Aug. 26, 1949, in Alpine, Texas.

Don received his Ph.D. in Biochemistry at the University of Texas and his M.D. at the University of Texas Medical Branch in Galveston, Texas. He did his residency in pathology at the University of Texas Medical Branch, and achieved board certification in Clinical, Anatomic and Radioisotopic Pathology. He was very active in his field, becoming a volunteer laboratory councilor, inspecting and certifying labs internationally for the College of American Pathologists, and rising through the college leadership to become speaker of its House of Delegates.

A veteran of the U.S. Air Force, he served in several capacities from 1954-1961 at the School of Aviation Medicine where he set up specialized laboratories to study the lack of oxygen and breathing patterns at high altitude as a contributor to pilot error. He also conducted other research to assist with preparations for manned space flight. The National Geographic Society became interested in this research, and published an article highlighting it. Don was featured in a photo in the August 1955 publication, with the article appearing on pages 241-278. He is the author of 17 research publications in aerospace medicine and cellular metabolism in brain tissue.

Don was inherently curious, with a keen analytic and data-driven intellect, furthering science throughout his career. He was also an early pioneer in the field of microchemistry, developing techniques to test very small amounts of blood to help pediatricians better care for infants.

Years later, while chair of the Department of Laboratory Medicine at St. John’s Hospital, he developed techniques to identify when the lungs of premature babies were mature enough to breath on their own, allowing many children in the region to be more safely born. His inspiration moved his children and grandchildren toward careers in science and medicine. 

A teacher throughout his career, he began as an instructor at the U.S. Air Force School of Aviation Medicine in San Antonio, Texas, in 1954, and continued as clinical director of Pathology at Baylor University Medical Center in Dallas, Texas, from 1966-1969. He also served as clinical professor of Pathology from 1969-1997 at the Southern Illinois University School of Medicine, where he served many years as assistant chair of the department. He was a teacher and mentor to many student scientists and physicians and was a member of many professional societies.

Don was appointed as a member of the State of Illinois Board of Public Health Advisors, a member of the Editorial Board of the Illinois Medical Journal, and was an elected member of the School Board of Springfield District 186. 

He had many other interests and pursued them with vigor. He was a pilot, owning and regularly flying his Bonanza P-36 for many years. He enjoyed woodworking and gardening, and was a master photographer, spending many hours in his home darkroom developing photos from his large format Hasselblad camera. He was invited to exhibit his work several times.  He particularly loved travel, and was blessed to visit all seven continents. A wine enthusiast, Don delighted in “wine time,” regularly setting aside time to talk and reflect with loved ones on life and the events of the day. 

The life he lived was a bit of an unlikely one. Born the year of the stock market crash, his family saw hard times in the small West Texas town he grew up in. His father worked at several businesses, but the economic times and then World War II did not favor his father’s hard work.  Don did well in high school, played the clarinet, was drum major, senior class president, an athlete, and gifted dancer—a joy he continued through his life with his bride from dancing on the highways of West Texas to closing down the DIA. He was voted Best All-‘Round Boy by his classmates. His mother insisted he attend college, and he earned his BS at Sul Ross State University in Texas where a professor recognized his talent and pushed him to go on to earn his PhD.  During these early years, he tragically lost his own father to suicide, something he rarely mentioned. 

He also met and married the love of his life, Eloise, and recently celebrated 69 years of marriage with his family present. He remained kind, loving and grateful right up until the end. With his wife, daughter, and son-in law attending to a sudden change in his alertness and strength, and in what would be the few hours before he died, the paramedics came to his home.

In assessing him, they pointed to Eloise and said, “Hey Dr. Don, who is that?” 

He replied, “Well, that is my wife, and she is an extraordinary woman,” causing all present to marvel and laugh. 

With a smile on his face, his last words to his wife and daughter as they left the hospital for the evening were, “It’s been a wonderful, wonderful day, full of many memorable events, and now its time to go,” as he drifted off into slumber. A few hours later he crossed over.

He was preceded in death by his parents; daughter, Vickie Van Fossan; and siblings, EJ Van Fossan and Letty Jean Atkinson.

He is survived by his wife Eloise Van Fossan of Springfield; son Dr. Donald Duane (Michelle) Van Fossan, Jr. of Volcano, California; daughter Dr. Jana (Dr. John) Dreyzehner of Nashville, Tennessee; and grandchildren Donnie Van Fossan of Volcano, Dr. Jennifer Van Fossan of Portland, Oregon, John Donald Dreyzehner of Baltimore, Maryland, and Jason Edward (Angela) Dreyzehner of Atlanta, Georgia.

The family received friends from on Nov. 14, 2018, at Kirlin-Egan & Butler Funeral Home in Springfield.

A funeral ceremony was held on Nov. 15, 2018, at First Christian Church in Springfield, with friend and pastor Rev. Rick Irwin officiating. At this very special church, Don’s two living children were both married, two of his four grandchildren were baptized, and his daughter’s funeral service was held in 1983. Here, Don served in many capacities, including deacon, elder and chair of elders, trustee, and finally as elder emeritus. Burial followed at Oak Ridge Cemetery.

Memorial contributions may be made to First Christian Church, 700 South Sixth Street, Springfield, IL 62703.

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Updated: 9:40 am | See more