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Art to Angus, Hospital to Home: A&S Alum Travels Diverse Career Path

Over the course of a career path lined with achievement, Dr. William Farr has come full circle.

Date: 9/18/2006
By: Britt Kennerly
Phone: (513) 556-8577
Over the course of a career path lined with achievement, Dr. William Farr has come full circle since his days in McMicken College of Arts and Sciences.

He left a rural New Jersey upbringing for Cincinnati as a teenager, graduating in 1962 with a degree in zoology and later, teaching at the College of Medicine. Farr moved on from there to Tucson, where he practiced medicine and pursued artistic leanings.

Dr. William Farr

Dr. William Farr

Now, almost a half-century later, this multi-tasking physician is back East and in the country – raising cattle on a farm in Milner, Ga., painting if the mood strikes him, editing a medical newsletter, and running three Web sites.

It is, from the wee hours on, a busy life for Farr and his wife, Dr. Elsa Sell, a retired pediatrician who spent 20 years as a neonatology faculty member at the University of Arizona.

It is, by any measure, a life full of changes and opportunity, one forever linked to arts and science.

For example, after long careers, Farr and his wife retired to Taos, N.M., in 1995. It was a short break.

“In 1999 my wife's father died and we inherited a cattle farm in Georgia,” said Farr. “Not being one to miss an opportunity, or challenge, we moved to Georgia and have continued to raise black Angus cattle and cross-bred cattle without any hired help.”

Three years ago, the couple began selling Angus beef directly to the public “as a means of providing a much-needed quality product and to increase cash flow – farming is a very difficult occupation due to high expenses and low reimbursement,” he said.

The two were named Pike County Agriculture Producers of the Year for 2005.

Farming wasn’t the picture in the frame, however, when Farr chose UC. He planned to study engineering in the co-op program alongside a friend who also was headed to Cincinnati. The summer before leaving, though, Farr “realized he didn’t like math, and better not go into engineering,” he said. A letter to A&S later, he was studying zoology.

He made a friend for life in Dr. William Spoor, who encouraged Farr when one bad grade temporarily kept the younger man out of medical school. Farr spent a year before medical school as a graduate assistant in zoology under Spoor, head of the department. They became close and kept in touch until just before Spoor died in February 2006, at age 93.

“He was still very lucid and articulate,” Farr said. “He was a great mentor.”

After two years studying medicine, Farr decided to get an advanced research degree in medical pharmacology. He earned it in 1967 and headed back for his last two years of medical school.

“At the time they did not have an organized PhD, M.D. program as they do now,” he said.

During those last two years, Farr taught in the college’s Department of Physiology. He worked with graduate and medical students and was co-director of a course for medical students called Dynamics of Clinical Disorders, which, he said, “tried to bridge the gap between basic medical science and the practice of clinical medicine.”

He received the M.D. degree in 1969 and stayed on as an assistant professor of Physiology and Experimental Medicine, in the department of cardiology.

Deciding to continue his clinical education, he left UC for the University of Arizona’s then-new school of medicine. He did an internship and residency in family medicine with emphasis on care of the elderly.

“It was really on a whim – I wanted to go west, where it was a little brighter,” he said.

Three years later, he opened a geriatric practice in Tucson, retiring from it in 1995. In 1976, he was approached about becoming the co-principal investigator on a National Cancer Institute contract to examine the feasibility of importing the concept of hospice care from Britain into the U.S. medical care system. As part of that assignment, he was medical director of Hillhaven Hospice in Tucson, one of the study sites and the first-free standing hospice in the U.S., he said. He continued as medical director of that program, and its successors, until retirement.

While Farr practiced medicine, he added additional responsibilities as medical director of a state-sponsored Medicaid HMO and a private Tucson HMO.

“Things were very hectic to say the least, but I did survive by extending the duration of the workday,” he said.

In 1986, Farr became Vice President of the International Hospice Institute (IHI). He continues as Vice Chair of the International Association for Hospice and Palliative Care (IAHPC), its successor.

Writing is a crucial part of his post-practice work: In 1996, he published the first newsletter for the IHI, and he’s been editor of IAHPC's online newsletter ( for the past 10 years. The publication is delivered by e-mail to 8,600 people each month around the globe. If all that’s not enough, Farr’s Webmaster for an art site for his work, and that of a friend,; their farm Web site,; and also for one of his deceased patients, Frank Waters, a well-known Southwest writer, at

Drs. Sell and Farr

Dr. Elsa Sell, center, and Dr. William Farr, right, of Georgia were named Pike County Agriculture Producers of the Year for 2005.

With a full menu of tasks and no farm employees, every day’s a workday, from 7 p.m. bedtimes to wee-hour wake-ups. It’s next to impossible for the couple to slot away-time together.

“My wife and I take one day a year off to go together to Athens to the university for a function,” Farr said. “My sister-in-law also raises cattle on this farm, so she babysits ours on that one day.”

Painting, too, has taken a back seat. Still, rewards blossom, as do the farm and the dogs they adore. Elsa Sell was at a dog show as Farr talked about their lives together.

“It’s fun to see these animals progress, and improve genetics,” Farr said. “There hasn’t been a financial reward. The drain is great, but we’re getting closer.”

Long hours aside, returning to rural roots hasn’t been hard for this doctor of many disciplines.

“Since I grew up in a rural area, I worked on a farm throughout the summers,” he said. “I always enjoyed it, and wished I had a farm. After I married, we visited here a lot, worked here and joined the cattle association – we always knew that someday, we’d have to make a decision about what we’d do here.”

For more on Dr. William Farr and Sell Farm, click here.

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