By Jane Estes
August 29, 1977 12:00 PM

Few medical students have shown as much ingenuity raising tuition money as Dr. John Bonica, 60, of Seattle, Wash. From 1938 to 1942 he managed to stay in med school by wrestling professionally—as the Masked Marvel, no less.

“I tried to keep it quiet by using the mask and different names,” says Bonica, recalling the summers when he toured with carnivals and took on all comers, as many as 20 a day.

On one occasion Bonica’s cover was blown by a fellow performer, an animal trainer named Clyde Keller, whose act was to put his head in a lion’s mouth. “When he tickled the lion’s ear,” Bonica says, “the animal would open his mouth and release him.” One afternoon the lion wasn’t ticklish, and Keller almost suffocated. Bonica rushed forward to revive the unconscious trainer, and everybody discovered there was a senior-year medical student in those wrestling tights.

John Joseph Bonica has since become an internationally renowned anesthesiologist and one of the foremost authorities on the control of pain. He is author or co-author of 26 books and some 200 papers on the subject. A founder and now president-elect of the International Association for the Study of Pain, he is also secretary-general of the World Federation of Anesthesiologists. In 1973 he was a member of the first American delegation to travel to mainland China to evaluate acupuncture. His judgment: “Therapeutic acupuncture has very limited usefulness in the management of chronic pain.”

Dr. Bonica’s concern about pain is unusually personal. When he was the Masked Marvel, pro wrestling was more than just muscular choreography, and the injuries he suffered in the ring left him partially disabled. He had badly torn hip joints, multiple rib fractures and cauliflower ears—”like two baseballs, the most painful thing in the world”—later repaired with plastic surgery. This year he was operated on to replace both hip sockets. He still faces corrective shoulder surgery. “The only way I keep sane is by working 15 to 18 hours a day,” he says.

The Italian-born Bonica, whose family emigrated to the U.S. and settled in Brooklyn when he was 11, began weight lifting at the YMCA. His wrestling purses helped finance his years at Long Island and New York universities and at the Marquette University Medical School. In addition to winning the world light-heavyweight title in 1941, he met Emma Baldetti at a wrestling match in Brooklyn. She became his wife in 1942.

Bonica’s interest in anesthesiology developed after Emma nearly died during childbirth in 1943. He gained further experience—and trained hundreds of anesthetists—in the Army Medical Corps where he also perfected the technique of the “nerve block” that makes an area numb to pain. During his postwar association with hospitals in Tacoma, Wash., he pioneered a team approach to the treatment of chronic pain.

In 1960 he was appointed head of the department of anesthesiology at the University of Washington. A year later, in collaboration with neurosurgeon Lowell White, he founded its pain clinic, the first in the U.S. Under the team approach, patients are checked by specialists in as many as 14 medical disciplines, who then jointly work out a program of therapy. (Forty million Americans are said to suffer from chronic pain.) “We don’t claim to solve every problem sent here, but we do help about 70 percent of the patients,” Bonica says. For the others, “We are able to teach the patient how to live with pain.”

Now grandparents (their three daughters and a son are grown), John and Emma Bonica live comfortably on the shore of Lake Washington. The doctor limits himself to a 75-calorie vegetable lunch so that for dinner, he explains, “I can have a martini and some of that good Italian food.”

Although he will continue to teach, Bonica will retire as department chairman at the end of the year to establish a basic research center on pain at the university. “I would like to find out why,” he says, “of the 21 million people with arthritis, one-third are disabled while others have pain in only one hand.”