Photo of Dr. Elemér Gabrieli

In Memoriam: Elemér Gabrieli

I found out in late September, 2000, that Dr. Elemér Gabrieli had passed away in March. His assistant, Dawn Rieger, was kind enough to provide me with this photo, the following obituaries from the Buffalo News and the Boston Globe, and a eulogy written by Dr. Barry Hieb.

--Peter Szolovits

From the Buffalo News

GABRIELI - Dr. Elmer dies; began use of computers in medicine 4/1/00

Elmer R. Gabrieli, 81, an internationally known physician who pioneered the use of computers in medicine and a former resident of Buffalo, died Wednesday (March 29, 2000) in his Cambridge, Mass., home after a short illness. Born in Hungary, he was known as a physician who learned three medical specialties in three different languages.

He received his medical degree at the P. Pazmany University School of Medicine in Budapest, Hungary, in 1941 and was a research assistant and later instructor in the university's Department of Experimental Pathology.

In 1946, he was invited to become a research associate of Sahlgrenska Hospital in Sweden, and from 1951 to 1955 was a research fellow and instructor in the Yale University School of Medicine.

He was named assistant pathologist at Millard Fillmore Hospital in 1958 and later was director of laboratories at the former E.J. Meyer Memorial Hospital and clinical assistant professor of pathology at the University at Buffalo Medical School.

Gabrieli, who lived and worked in Buffalo for 35 years before moving to the Boston area, became a leader in the study of how computers could be used to facilitate patient care, and wrote for numerous scientific publications. He founded the Journal of Clinical Computing, which was edited in Buffalo for many years, and Gabrieli Medical Information Systems, a successful software company.

Along the way, he became a leading advocate for the protection of privacy for medical information and headed committees on the issue for the medical societies of Erie County and New York State. He also became an adviser for the Office of Technology Assessment for Congress and an expert witness at congressional hearings on medical privacy. He was called on to testify at congressional hearings in behalf of the National Committee on Vital and Health Statistics as recently as 1999. Author of three books, "Computerization of Clinical Records," "Ethical Guidelines for Data Centers Handling Medical Records" and "Clinically Oriented Documentation of Laboratory Data," Gabrieli was writing another book at the time of his death.

He was founder and president of Computer Based Medicine Inc., and developed a medical narrative text processor that is able to read and understand free medical text, extract and code the clinical facts and build an electronic clinical fact bank to convert medical records into live storage. Gabrieli also developed a biomedical nomenclature of more than 180,000 medical terms arranged hierarchically and coded.

He belonged to numerous professional organizations and, in 1998, was the initial recipient of the Elmer Gabrieli Award established in his honor by the American Society for Testing and Materials. Gabrieli, who lived most of his 35 years in Buffalo in the Central Park area, also was known for his sense of humor and observations. He said that coffee didn't make drunks sober and that alcohol didn't improve a person's sex life.

Survivors include his wife, Lilla; two sons, John of Palo Alto, Calif., and Christopher of Boston; and four grandchildren. A memorial service will be held at a time and place to be announced.

From the Boston Globe

Elmer Gabrieli; 81
As a physician, he melded computers, medicine
By Globe Staff, 3/31/2000

Elmer R. Gabrieli, a physician who learned three medical specialties in three languages and was a pioneer in use of computers in medicine, died Wednesday at his home in Cambridge. He was 81.

A native of Hungary, Dr. Gabrieli received his medical degree from the University of Budapest in 1942. He moved to Sweden in 1947, where as a surgeon he performed medical research at the Karolinska Institute. He moved to the United States in 1951, where he trained in clinical pathology at Yale University and became a fellow of the American College of Pathology.

He lived in Buffalo for 35 years, where he worked at the Millard Fillmore and E.J. Meyer Memorial hospitals and at SUNY-Buffalo School of Medicine. Dr. Gabrieli became a leader in the study of how computers could facilitate patient care, writing numerous scientific publications and founding the Journal of Clinical Computing. In 1991, he cofounded a software company, Gabrieli Medical Information Systems, on the basis of his ideas. He was also a leading advocate for the protection of patient privacy.

He was the father of former congressional candidate and venture capitalist Chris Gabrieli of Boston. In 1997, Dr. Gabrieli received the Massachusetts Medical Society's Special Award for Excellence in Medical Service for a "distinguished demonstration of compassion and dedication to the medical needs of patients and the public." In 1998, he was the initial recipient of the Elmer Gabrieli Award, established by the American Society for Testing and Materials to honor his contributions to the field of medical computing.

He also leaves his wife, Lilla; another son, John of Palo Alto, Calif.; and four grandchildren.

Services will be held at a later date. Burial will be private.

This story ran on page B07 of the Boston Globe on 3/31/2000.
Copyright 2000 Globe Newspaper Company.

Eulogy by Dr. Barry Hieb

Words are a poor medium to capture the essence of a person but that is the medium which we are given so it will have to do. On March 29 of this year healthcare lost a lifelong friend with the death of Dr. Elmer Gabrieli. As those of your who were privileged to know him are aware, he was a man who was both strange and exceedingly wonderful. For those of you who did not know him, you missed the overwhelmingly sense of strangeness when someone in a heavy Hungarian accent could spend five minutes or two hours explaining more about how your native English language works that you ever knew - and sometimes more than you wanted to know. And you also missed the wonderfulness of working with someone who dedicated his life to the pursuit of improving healthcare.

To say that Elmer Gabrieli was a visionary would be somewhat of an understatement. At a time when computing was still a novelty Dr. Gabrieli grasped the potential of this technology for healthcare and set about making it real. His greatest financial success was the establishment of a computer system to perform automated coding of medical facts. But his true love - and the passion that occupied the last four decades of his life - was to find a way to automate the conversion of raw medical text into coded medical facts. Elmer correctly understood the difficulty and the significance of this endeavor.

This is not the place to debate the merits of the system he ultimately created, save to note that in many ways it is still unique among such systems. What is worth noting is that thanks in part to his efforts there has been an explosion of interest in addressing this problem and a virtually universal recognition of its importance as a fundamental infrastructure to permit continued progress in medical informatics.

Along the way he garnered accolades from a host of organizations including the Western New York Medical Records Association, the medical informatics section of ASTM, the Health Information Management Association of New York City, the American Health Information Management Association, and the Massachusetts Medical Society. He also wrote three books and founded the Journal of Clinical Computing. He was a strong advocate concerning the privacy of medical records and the importance of generating national databases of anonymized, standardized clinical information as the basis from which true experience-based edical management can be developed.

We will miss you, Elmer Gabrieli. We will miss your Hungarianized pronunciation of English. We will miss your presence on boards an committees and panels to help guide the evolution of medicine. We will miss your sometimes tedious and sometimes exhilarating discussions of how the language of medicine is used to capture and convey information. And perhaps most of all we will miss your seemingly endless series of demonstration of how your nomenclature and natural language processing system can take raw medical text and transform it into a bewildering series of Gabrieli codes that express its semantics in discrete items.

We cannot know what the future will hold for healthcare or even whether the nomenclature and natural language processing system that you developed and nurtured for over 20 years will survive. But you can rest in comfort, Elmer. You can rest knowing that your mark on medical informatics is indelible. You can rest knowing that we will continue to build on the legacy that you have left for us. And you can rest secure in the knowledge that million of Americans have benefited and will continue to benefit from your work.

Farewell, Elmer Gabrieli, we will miss you.

Barry R. Hieb, M.D.
Research Director
Healthcare Industry Research & Advisory Services
2515 E. 7th Street
Tucson, AZ 85716

A Note on the Name

Elemer's first name in Hungarian is Elemér, and is pronounced as the first part of "elem[ent]", the vowel sound from "hay", and a strong "r". The name in English is, of course, "Elmer", and he often used "Elemer" without the accent in typographically challenged settings like ASCII.

This is part of Peter Szolovits' Web page. September 26, 2000.