Donald C. Zavala, MD, FCCP, 1923-2022

The below message was shared from Joseph Zabner, MD, professor and former director of the Division of Pulmonary, Critical Care, and Occupational Medicine.

It is with the greatest sadness that I let you know of the passing today of Donald C. Zavala, MD, FCCP. One more time he taught us something, how to rest in peace. After finishing the morning crossword, he took a nap and did not wake up.

In 1969, Dr. Z became the first Fellow of the Pulmonary Division. As a faculty member from 1970 until his retirement in 1992, he was a pioneer in the development of fiberoptic bronchoscopy and is known by all as the father of bronchoscopy. His textbooks on exercise physiology, nutrition in the intensive care unit, and fiberoptic bronchoscopy became the ‘go to’ introductory books in these areas all over the world.

Dr. Zavala was an iconoclast. He made rules that were written in stone, but routinely he changed the stones. As one of his last trainees, I feel blessed to have inherited his skills and knowledge and also his boundless energy. When he retired, he passed along the title of ‘Dr. Z’ to me, and I am still trying to be worthy of this title.

He has been an important and vibrant founding member of our Division and will be dearly missed.

Read more about Zavala in this obituary, and in this Giants in Chest Medicine article by Joel Kline, MD, and Zabner, published in the journal Chest in 2019.

While Don’s greatest contributions to the field of chest medicine are clearly within the realm of fiberoptic bronchoscopy, his accomplishments are much wider. In a similarly enthusiastic manner, he developed expertise in cardiopulmonary exercise testing and nutritional assessment. In each case, he proved able to distill the important aspects of complicated new technologies to trainees and eager professionals.

Donald C. Zavala has every right to be proud of his many achievements. For all of his numerous trainees, we would like to take this opportunity to say: “You touched my life!” Dr Zavala gave us confidence in our ability to wield a bronchoscope safely and effectively. He taught us how to perform and interpret cardiopulmonary exercise testing. He drummed into our tired heads the importance of nutritional assessment and intervention in the ICU. But, most importantly, he gave us a sense of optimism.

Earlier this month, Dr. Zavala was a guest speaker for one of his grandchildren’s medical school classes at the University of Cincinnati. He was still teaching and doing what he loved right up until the end. The entire video is worth watching, but the story of his early days at Iowa and his first uses of fiberoptic bronchoscopy begins at the 5:23 mark.


On Thursday last week, at the start of the tenth annual Geoffrey McLennan Lecture in Pulmonary Disease and Biomedical Imaging, Division Director David Stoltz, MD, PhD, recognized Zavala’s impact at Iowa and held a moment of silence in his honor. That video is here.

A celebration of his life will be held 10:00 am Thursday, September 29, 2022, at Belin United Methodist Church, 4182 US-17 Business Murrells Inlet, SC 29576. The live stream for the SC service can be found at:

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