Dr. Neil Culp helped start one of Mercy Hospitals' first hospice programs.

Obituary: Doctor was local leader on cancer

Published: Saturday, Jul. 13, 2013 - 12:00 am | Page 4B
Last Modified: Monday, Jul. 15, 2013 - 7:18 am

Neil Culp, a battlefield physician in Vietnam who was instrumental in establishing Sacramento cancer and hospice programs, died July 7 of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, his family said. He was 80.

Dr. Culp was a leader in medicine and the military. After interning at a hospital in New York, he joined the Army in 1960 and studied under Dr. William H. Crosby, a pioneering hematologist, at Walter Reed Hospital in Washington.

He treated wounded soldiers and children from local villages as head of a front-line medical unit in the Vietnam War in 1967-68. He was chief of medicine at Letterman Hospital in San Francisco and rose to colonel during 12 years in the Army.

He spent 13 more years in the National Guard after moving to Sacramento in 1972. Besides private practice, his career included stints as chief of medicine for Sutter Community Hospitals, associate clinical professor at UC Davis and board member for the Sacramento Medical Foundation Blood Center. He was a founding member of the Sacramento Center for Hematology and Medical Oncology.

Dr. Paul Rosenberg, a former practice partner, said Dr. Culp was active in a group of doctors who created a multidisciplinary model for cancer treatment in the 1980s that laid the foundation for Sutter Cancer Center. He also worked with Dr. Mary Retzer to set up an early local hospice program for Mercy Hospitals.

"He was an exemplary human being and one of the finest clinicians," said Dr. Gregory M. Graves of Sutter Cancer Center. "He cared greatly for his patients."

The son of a Wurlitzer jukebox distributor, Neil Walker Culp was born March 30, 1933, in Chelsea, Okla. A talented trumpet player, he studied music before changing to pre-medicine at the University of Tulsa and earned a medical degree from Washington University in St. Louis in 1959.

He was married to the former Peggy Bolin for 52 years, until her death in 2011. He is survived by four children, Lisa of Carmichael, Stacia of San Rafael, David of Roseville and Christopher of San Francisco; a sister, Judy James of Tulsa; and six grandchildren.

A funeral Mass is set for 1 p.m. Tuesday at St. Ignatius Church, 3235 Arden Way, Sacramento. In lieu of flowers, donations may be made to the ALS Association, Society for the Blind, or Women's Empowerment.

Dr. Culp was a humble man who devoted himself to helping others. He turned down an invitation to be President Richard Nixon's personal physician so that he could move his family to Sacramento, said his daughter Stacia. He often worked late and made house calls to meet with cancer patients, answer questions and offer support.

"When we were kids, it was hard to understand why he was missing dinner or family things," his daughter said.

"But we got to learn about who he was and his character through the eyes of his patients and the families he helped. They were so grateful to him. He was always putting other people before himself."

Call The Bee's Robert D. Dávila, (916) 321-1077. Follow him on Twitter @bob_davila.

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