A pioneer in the field of laboratory medicine, Dr. Irene Roeckel devised laboratory procedures for understanding kidney and liver diseases, glucose and insulin tolerance, and carbohydrate metabolism. Later in her career, Dr. Roeckel oversaw the development and management of the first blood bank at the University of Kentucky.
Born in Heidelberg, Germany, in 1924, Irene Roeckel studied medicine and graduated summa cum laude from the University of Heidelberg Medical School in 1948. After World War II, Dr. Roeckel worked as a research associate in the university's biochemistry department developing diagnostic tests. In 1949, the U.S. Army 97th General Hospital in Frankfurt requested that the University of Heidelberg provide some physicians. "Basically, the university sent me into the army," recalled Dr. Roeckel, "And the first thing that happened was that they wanted me to do surgery."
When she came to the United States in 1952, Dr. Roeckel served a rotating internship and pathology residency in New York City. She received her board certifications in clinical and anatomical pathology in 1957 and 1958, respectively. Dr. Roeckel went on to serve as assistant professor of pathology at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C., from 1957 to 1960.
Dr. Roeckel's training in laboratory medicine was crucial in her later work."The development of laboratory methodology was really, really important in improving medical care. Yet not too many doctors were interested or trained in laboratory medicine. I was able to serve as a bridge between seeing what patients needed, and knowing the capabilities of the laboratory. Knowing both the laboratory and patient side of medicine, I was able to say, 'Here's our problem. How can we use the laboratory to get our answer?' "
While she was in Washington, D.C. in the early 1960s, Dr. Roeckel received a phone call from a former New York colleague. He wanted her to join the faculty at the newly established University of Kentucky Medical School in Lexington. "He told me, 'You've got to come down here. It's a new facility, really great. And it's Kentucky. We've got horses.' " An accomplished dressage rider and horse enthusiast, that was all the incentive Dr. Roeckel needed. She moved to Lexington, Kentucky as assistant professor of pathology in 1964, beginning a forty-year affiliation with the University of Kentucky Medical School.
As new medical techniques developed during the 1960s, so did the surgeon's reliance on blood transfusions to help patients survive prolonged and complicated procedures. There were, however, few systems in place for its proper storage or delivery. Dr. Roeckel remembers how neighboring hospitals would call "at one in the morning and say, 'We've got your blood.' And in the middle of the night, I'd drive down and pick it up. It was absolutely ridiculous." The university needed a blood bank. With the backing of a local medical society, she became the founding director of the Central Kentucky Blood Bank in 1973. With Dr. Roeckel's vision and direction, the blood center grew in size and importance. The center was originally housed in a small space under a snack bar. Today it occupies its own building.
In conjunction with her academic duties as a clinical professor of pathology, Dr. Roeckel served as a board member of the American Association of Blood Banks, and chaired its district committee on inspection and accreditation.
A fellow of both the College of American Pathologists and the American Society of Clinical Pathologists, Dr. Roeckel received the American Association of Blood Banks' John Elliot Memorial Award in 2001. Four decades since she first arrived, she is still teaching at the university and boarding and training horses, the two interests that originally brought her to Kentucky-medicine and horses.