Steven Leitch, Utah medical photographer and poet, dies at 72

He captured images for research and teaching, and helped chronicle the work to implant the first permanent artificial heart.

(Deanna Leitch) In an exhibition of his work at the Eccles Library in January 2019, Leitch said "I love being able to capture a moment or thought in time and preserve it for others to witness along with me, the beauty and uniqueness of this world of ours. Photography and poetry, through image and script, allows me to do both; and why I love it so.”

Steven Leitch, whose photographs documented medical history and research at the University of Utah and whose poetry explored the life of a veteran, has died.

Leitch died Jan. 31, from cancer, according to Paul Ford, a colleague. He was 72.

Chris Nelson, interim chief communication officer at the University of Utah, called Leitch “incredibly well-rounded. He was passionate about photography, he was passionate about art. He had a really great way of just connecting with people.”

Leitch worked 37 years as a photographer for the University of Utah Hospital and the university’s medical school, retiring in 2015. Nelson said Leitch was one of several photographers in a department called “medical graphics,” capturing images of everything from orthopedic surgery to open-heart procedures. The images were used in research studies, medical journals, and to show to other teaching hospitals, Nelson said.

(Spencer S. Eccles Health Sciences Library | University of Utah) A photograph of Steven Leitch with his camera.

“They had two or three photographers, including Steven, who would be called in the operating rooms or called into clinic offices, just to kind of document different things for our physicians and researchers,” Nelson said.

Leitch took photos of one of the university’s biggest medical breakthroughs: When Dr. William DeVries transplanted the Jarvik-7, the first permanent artificial heart, into the chest of 61-year-old Seattle dentist Barney Clark, in 1982.

As a photographer in an operating room, Leitch had to scrub before procedures, then head into the dark room after the operation to manually develop prints. (“This was prior to extensive use of digital photography,” Nelson explained.)

In a high-stress environment like an operating room, a certain degree of trust between the surgeon and photographer was key. “Steven was a special guy in terms of building those relationships,” Nelson said. “He knew what they were looking for and he’d be able to get that.”

(Steven Leitch | Spencer S. Eccles Health Sciences Library) A photograph Steven Leitch took in 1982 of Dr. William DeVries, right, the surgeon who implanted the first permanent artificial heart, and Dr. Willem Kolff, one of the developers of the Jarvik-7 artificial heart.

Besides photography — which Leitch also practiced during 30 years in the U.S. Army Reserve — Leitch’s other passion was poetry. He was, at the time of his death, president of the Utah State Poetry Society.

Paul Ford, the society’s president before him, described Leitch as “selfless. … He was really interested in being there for others. I’m sure this carried over some poetry, but he was really dedicated to our poetry society and to the poets.”

Lin Floyd, president of the society’s Dixie Poets Chapter, said Leitch was “ever positive and [gave] his all, even ‘til the end.”

“For the past two plus years he contributed tirelessly to keep us all going while COVID was running rampant in our state,” Floyd said. “We had to go to virtual Zoom conferences, which he helped facilitate ... He made the effort to try to visit every chapter in the state and get to know and support each of us.”

Paisley Rekdal, Utah’s poet laureate, said in a tweet last week that Leitch was “a good advocate for poetry and community.”

Many of Leitch’s poems talked about his experiences as a veteran. One of his favorites, “Hallowed Ground,” was inspired by walking around the cemetery at Fort Douglas.

I stand on hallowed ground

and gaze at marbled stone.

Beneath my feet in chambers lie

those who sleep alone.

I stand on hallowed ground

so light my footsteps trod.

I dare not wake the resting ones

lulled by the pulse of God.

I stand on hallowed ground

in all humility,

and think of those who came before

to shape this land for me.

I stand on hallowed ground

this sacred sanctuary.

I gather with the present here,

join the past in memory.

I stand on hallowed ground

in debt with gratitude,

not fully comprehending,

their strength and fortitude.

I feel their presence welcome me,

in awe my soul is bound,

to share this day in memory,

I stand on hallowed ground.

Leitch was born Nov. 29, 1949, in Lima, Ohio; and his family moved around the country during his adopted father’s Navy career. The family eventually settled in Charleston, S.C., where Leitch joined The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and he stayed in the faith the rest of his life.

After a stint in the U.S. Air Force, Leitch attended Weber State University, graduating in 1978. He met his future wife, Deanna, in 1979; they were later married in the Salt Lake Temple.

Leitch is survived by his wife, Deanna; stepsons Ryan and Shaun; daughter Stephanie; three grandsons; his brother Charles and sister Lisa Taylor. His parents died previously.

A celebration of Leitch’s life will be held Saturday, Feb. 12, at 1 p.m. at the West Jordan 8th Ward, 8435 S. 2700 West, West Jordan. An open house will begin at noon, before the service. The family requests that those attending wear masks. Graveside services will be held Monday, Feb. 14, at 1 p.m., at the Utah Veterans Memorial Cemetery, 17111 S. 1700 West, Bluffdale.