Dr. Daniel F. Gunther, a respected physician at Children's Hospital & Regional Medical Center whose support for a hysterectomy performed...

Share story

Dr. Daniel F. Gunther, a respected physician at Children’s Hospital & Regional Medical Center whose support for a hysterectomy performed on a 6-year-old disabled girl in order to keep her small became a national controversy, committed suicide last week.

But Gunther’s colleagues and family members said Wednesday they don’t believe his suicide was fueled in any way by the case, in which he was both sharply criticized and graciously praised.

The King County Medical Examiner said Gunther, 49, died by inhaling automobile exhaust at his Seattle home on Sept. 30.

Gunther had experienced periods of depression in the past, said his brother-in-law, Michael Gunther Maher of Fair Oaks, Calif. “The family believes his history of depression is the reason” for his suicide, he said.

Gunther, a pediatric endocrinologist, was the primary advocate at Children’s Hospital and Regional Medical Center for the family of a severely physically and mentally disabled 6-year-old known publicly only as Ashley. The family said they wanted to keep their “Pillow Angel” small in order to continue caring for her at home and so that she would be more comfortable.

In 2004, doctors performed a hysterectomy on Ashley, who also received other procedures and medication to stop further development.

Earlier this year, after an investigation by a disability-rights group, Children’s Hospital said it had not followed the law because the surgery had been done without a court order.

Gunther never sought fame or publicity, said his colleague, Dr. Doug Diekema. But after Diekema and Gunther co-authored a paper last year outlining Ashley’s treatment, they received plenty of attention, including both “nasty e-mails” and enthusiastic support.

“We both faced some harassment,” Diekema said. But Gunther also heard from many who considered him “a hero for standing up for families,” Diekema said.

“I never got the sense from Dan that he was depressed and down about the Ashley case,” Diekema said. “I think he felt good about the way he helped that family. … I think in many ways, it energized him.”

In their online accounts of their experiences, Ashley’s family praised Gunther, “without whose courage, confidence, knowledge, open-mindedness and unwavering support the treatment would not have been realized and the idea would have remained just an idea.”

Gunther was an associate professor at the University of Washington School of Medicine and had been an attending physician in pediatric endocrinology at Children’s Hospital and Regional Medical Center since 1998.

Carol M. Ostrom: 206-464-2249 or costrom@seattletimes.com. Staff reporters Brian Alexander and Kyung M. Song contributed to this report.