Paul Auerbach excelled at responding to medical emergencies of a particular order. One of the founders of what became known as wilderness medicine, Auerbach was an authority on how to treat everything from snake bites, bear attacks and extreme altitude sickness to mushroom poisoning and lightning strikes.
Paul Stuart Auerbach, MS ’89, the Redlich Family Professor, emeritus, died on June 23 of brain cancer at his Los Altos home. He was 70.
A born adventurer and a lover of the outdoors, Auerbach built a career on responding to moments when adventure and disaster collide—often life-threatening situations for which he found many physicians ill-prepared. Nearly 40 years ago, fresh out of his medical residency, Auerbach co-edited Management of Wilderness and Environmental Emergencies, a reference guide he later updated and republished as Auerbach’s Wilderness Medicine—still the definitive textbook in its field, expanded to include sections on cave rescues, avalanches and volcanic eruptions.
“There’s no way to have read the textbook on every organism, every reptile, every aquatic animal and every environmental disaster,” says Andra Blomkalns, Auerbach’s colleague and chair of the department of emergency medicine at Stanford. “But you can train people to have a skillset to deal with the unexpected.”
In 2010, when a 7.0-magnitude earthquake struck Haiti, Auerbach flew there to deliver medical help to the hundreds of thousands of disaster victims. The experience was searing and prompted him to launch the Stanford Emergency Medicine Program for Emergency Response, which provides disaster relief around the world, including after the typhoon that laid waste to the Philippines in 2013, the earthquake that hit Nepal in 2015 and the catastrophic California wildfires in 2018.
Auerbach grew up in New Jersey and studied religion at Duke University, where he also earned a medical degree. He completed his residency in emergency medicine at UCLA and pursued management studies at the Stanford Graduate School of Business. In 1983, he helped found the Wilderness Medical Society, dedicated to researching and teaching about medical challenges in wilderness environments, and worked with the Divers Alert Network to improve safety for deep-sea divers.
Those who knew Auerbach describe a determined figure committed to providing the best care wherever such care was needed, whether in the hospital, in the mountains or at home. He was “a leader who always used his ‘true north’ to point the way,” says Kari Nadeau, a professor of medicine and pediatrics at Stanford. He also had an acute awareness of the world’s pressing needs and felt people weren’t doing enough to respond, according to his son Danny.
Danny recalls running late for a Little League tournament as a kid when his father drove past an overturned car on the side of the road. Auerbach pulled over to rescue the driver. “Nothing else mattered to him in that moment in time but helping the person that needed help,” Danny says.
In addition to Danny, Auerbach is survived by his wife, Sherry; children Lauren and Brian; mother, Leona; and two siblings.
Carly Stern is a freelance reporter based in San Francisco who covers housing, disability and economic inequality.