Longtime Los Altos resident Alan Merchant, 82, has experienced a large number of knee problems.
Known by his patients as Dr. Merchant, he has explored and influenced the field of patellofemoral orthopedics for more than half a century. In layman’s terms, that means he knows a great deal about orthopedics, surgery and patellas (kneecaps).
He grew up in Stockton and earned a bachelor’s degree in biology, summa cum laude, from Stanford University in 1951. As an undergraduate, Merchant had already considered becoming a surgeon.
“I knew I wanted to go into the sciences, and I liked working with my hands,” he said.
Merchant specializes in reconstructive surgery, which essentially uses surgery to improve the functionality of a body part.
“In a way, it’s like instant gratification,” he said. “You take something that’s broken and you fix it. Many surgical specialties don’t have that – like cancer, for example.”
Merchant is famous for a technique he developed for conducting X-rays, which revolutionized the way orthopedic doctors view the kneecap. Taken from above the knee, it has become the standard X-ray used throughout patella orthopedics. In his initial paper, he described the method as an “axial roentgenogram.” His colleagues, along with the rest of the medical field, now call it “The Merchant View.”
“They’re very good at slapping people’s names on things,” Merchant said with a smile.
In addition to his research, Merchant practiced at El Camino Hospital in Mountain View. He joined the staff in 1962, a year after the hospital was founded, and retired 42 years later.
Although he no longer operates, Merchant continues his research and contributes to the field on a regular basis. He is currently searching for a new way to make cuts when aligning a knee.
Merchant credits his ability to stay active and influential in the medical field to his wife, Joan.
They met as sophomores at Stanford, “across the botany lab table,” according to Joan. In their junior year, Merchant and his Theta Delta Chi fraternity serenaded her and asked her to be his girlfriend.
They married in Stanford Memorial Church three days after graduation and have three children and six grandchildren.
“(Joan) helped put me through med school, raised the children when I was away developing the practice, taking emergency calls, all the while being a loving wife, mother and partner,” Merchant said.
Merchant expressed his continuing devotion and gratitude to his wife.
“She’s still beautiful,” he said. “Whatever I’ve accomplished is due mostly to her encouragement, help and hard work. As she says, ‘Al does the orthopedics, and I do all the rest.’”