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Dr. Ray Wunderlich Jr., an early advocate of holistic medicine, dies at 84

Published May 6, 2014

ST. PETERSBURG — You've seen him for years, running along Pinellas Point Drive S, a thin, almost gaunt man with heavy black-framed glasses and a relentless pace. Dr. Ray Wunderlich Jr. was as much a part of southern St. Petersburg as the pink concrete streets where he raised a family.

The running, like his wide-ranging intellectual pursuits, covered great distances and meant something. He told his patients, "When you stop moving, you die."

As a young man, he had dated poet Sylvia Plath, who referred to Dr. Wunderlich as "a brilliant, ebullient medical student." He would later sprinkle his medical articles with references to the likes of Shelley and Keats, part of a Renaissance mission to improve the patient — that is, the entire person — on every level.

Dr. Wunderlich, one of the earliest local medical doctors to advocate holistic treatments — which he defined as good nutrition, exercise, spirituality and the elimination of toxins — died Thursday of pneumonia. He was 84.

Dr. Wunderlich started his career as a pediatrician and later expanded his practice. He was known as an excellent diagnostician and a "doctor of last resort," his family said, if not always what patients expected. In the 1970s, recommending acupuncture, massage or "chelation" therapy (designed to rid the body of metals) — were far out of the mainstream.

"(Some) people thought he was out there," said Janet Matthews, his daughter, 55.

Many more, including Elizabeth Steinbrenner and the Bellamy Brothers, considered Dr. Wunderlich a lifesaver.

"He realized way back then, in the '70s, that with the antibiotics he was pretty much treating the symptoms of the disease," said daughter Mary Faurot, 56, a biologist. "So that kind of morphed him into thinking, 'Wait a minute, there's more going on.' "

The broader approach did not endear him to medical colleagues. A local chapter of the American Medical Association revoked Dr. Wunderlich's membership, his family said. He retained his national membership and his practice.

Ray Charles Wunderlich Jr. was born in Gulfport in 1929, the son of an osteopath and a librarian. His relationship with Plath started when she was a student at Smith College and he was studying at Columbia University. From 1957 to 1959, he served as a captain in the Air Force Medical Corps. Dr. Wunderlich never strayed far from literature, even as he wrote papers about hyperactivity and books about pediatric allergies and carpal tunnel syndrome.

He was acutely interested in abnormal psychology as well, a development that led him to initiate a long correspondence with convicted Nazi architect Albert Speer, who designed Hitler's gas chambers.

He took his family to visit Speer in Germany, and influenced them with his other passions. After he banished white bread and milk from the house, his wife, Elinor, wrote a whole-foods cookbook. In the 1990s, while caring for her Alzheimer's disease, Dr. Wunderlich studied English literature at the University of South Florida. Two years after his wife's death, he earned a Ph.D, at age 72.

Over the years, Dr. Wunderlich ran 10 marathons and hundreds of shorter road races, filling up a room with ribbons and trophies for his age group. He continued with the onset of Alzheimer's, but at age 80 switched to walks of up to 15 miles. (His son, health and environmental educator Ray Wunderlich III, became a top-tier amateur runner.)

As he weakened with pneumonia, his family refused artificial measures to prolong his life. Dr. Wunderlich, who had never wanted to stop moving, shuffled through Countryside Mall on Wednesday, the day before he died.

Andrew Meacham can be reached at ameacham@tampabay.com or (727) 892-2248.

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