Ephraim Friedman; excelled as doctor, sculptor, outdoorsman

By Bryan Marquard
Globe Staff / June 21, 2011

E-mail this article

Invalid E-mail address
Invalid E-mail address

Sending your article

Your article has been sent.

Text size +

Never one to do just one thing, Dr. Ephraim Friedman tried to set an example as dean of the Boston University School of Medicine.

“I like to look a student in the eye and tell him, ‘I teach and I operate and I do research,’ ’’ he told the Globe in December 1971.

That list was already outdated, however. Six months earlier he became, at 41, the youngest dean of a major US medical school.

To administrator, professor, ophthalmologist, surgeon, and researcher in the field of age-related macular degeneration, he added challenging pursuits outside work. An avid outdoorsman, he hiked the Sierra mountains in the West and carved a vacation home out of the Maine woods. An accomplished sculptor, he shaped clay into figures of delicate beauty.

Dr. Friedman, who also formerly served as president of the Massachusetts Eye and Ear Infirmary, died Saturday at his home in Beverly Farms, more than six years after being diagnosed with a glioblastoma brain tumor. He was 81.

“He was really a renaissance man,’’ said Dr. Joan W. Miller, chief of ophthalmology at Mass. Eye and Ear and chairwoman of the ophthalmology department at Harvard Medical School.

“He was recognized as an investigator, as a skilled clinician and retinal surgeon, a teacher, and an administrator,’’ said Dr. Simmons Lessell, who is the Paul A. Chandler professor of ophthalmology at Harvard Medical School. “And he was a generous man, which I think is extremely important in an academician who leads. He was a combination of passion and cool reasoning. That’s a combination you don’t always find.’’

While rising in Boston’s medical community, Dr. Friedman quietly kept honing his skills as an artist.

“His first love was sculpting,’’ said his wife, Dagmar. “He sculpted since he was a little boy.’’

Dr. Friedman “was a really good sculptor, no question,’’ said Nancy Schon, his neighbor and onetime teacher, who is known among other works for her “Make Way for Ducklings’’ sculpture in Boston’s Public Garden. “He was not some kind of amateur. He could have done this professionally.’’

Dr. Friedman “had kind of a tireless energy’’ in class, said Lloyd Lillie, with whom he also studied and whose work includes renderings of former Mayor James Michael Curley outside Faneuil Hall.

“You can see in his work a sense of joy in making things in clay,’’ Lillie said. “It was always a pleasure to work with him. When he was a student of mine, he was a true inspiration to the other students because he wouldn’t take breaks; he just wanted to keep working. I wish I had him in every one of my classes.’’

Dr. Friedman was born in Los Angeles on New Year’s Day 1930 and was the oldest of five children whose parents built a successful bag company, beginning with burlap.

He traveled east to attend Yeshiva University High School in New York City, graduating in 1946, and returned home to major in zoology at the University of California, Los Angeles, where he received a bachelor’s degree four years later.

Dr. Friedman received his medical degree from the School of Medicine at the University of California, San Francisco, in 1954, the year he married Dagmar Benioff.

Both were members of the Sierra Club and met on a club outing while hiking in the Weminuche Wilderness in Colorado.

“We fell in love on that trip,’’ she said.

While serving two years in the Air Force as a captain, stationed in Texas and Alabama, Dr. Friedman first began pursuing ophthalmology. After finishing military service, he trained at Hadassah Medical Center in Jerusalem and Mass. Eye and Ear, before taking a research fellowship at a Harvard laboratory.

When Boston University recruited him to chair the medical school’s ophthalmology department, he was in his 30s and looked younger, so much so that a colleague who did not recognize the new department head once chastised Dr. Friedman “for using the surgeons’ dressing room, which was off-limits to medical students,’’ Lessell said.

Nevertheless, Lessell said, “he exceeded the high expectations that were held for him, and he created an excellent department.’’

Less than three years after becoming dean, Dr. Friedman announced he was leaving to take the same post at Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York City.

In the early 1980s, he returned to Boston to become president of Mass. Eye and Ear, taking the job with high ambitions, some of which were hobbled when the infirmary faced budget shortfalls.

Also while he was serving as president, the Globe reported that an infirmary physician downplayed negative test results for an experimental eye treatment. The physician, Scheffer C.G. Tseng, and his family, who owned stock in the company producing the ointment, made at least $1 million through stock payments and other payments from the company, the Globe reported. The articles helped prompt reviews by federal securities regulators, two congressional panels, and universities associated with the studies.

About 14 months after the first article appeared, Dr. Friedman announced he was stepping down.

“Objectives are rarely, if ever, totally achieved,’’ he told the Globe in December 1989. “I have chosen to leave the infirmary at this time because I believe I have come as close as possible to doing what I set out to do.’’

Freed from administrative duties, he spent more time sculpting and staying in the log cabin he built on the shore of Lake Sysladobsis in Maine.

After leaving Mass. Eye and Ear, “we spent two months in Europe, where he went to every museum and drew every sculpture he could find,’’ his wife said.

“For him, it was not a casual pastime,’’ said his son David of Stamford, Conn. “He threw himself into it as much as he threw himself into everything else, with a passion to understand it and pursue it the best he could.’’

Dr. Friedman, he added, “was very good at analyzing situations and figuring out solutions. He was someone who believed strongly that you figure out what the problem is, plan ahead, do your homework, and if you do all those things, you’ll succeed.’’

A service was held yesterday for Dr. Friedman, who in addition to his wife and son leaves two daughters, Deborah of Walnut Creek, Calif., and Karen of Berkeley, Calif.; another son, Jonathan of Boulder, Colo.; three sisters, Annette Bothman of Ventura, Calif.; Linda Goldwyn of Kiryat Tivon, Israel; and Beatrice Kopp of Boise, Idaho; and nine grandchildren.

“He was a very strong man, but he was very sensitive in his soul: sentimental, loving, but in a very quiet way,’’ Schon said. “He had a kind of empathy in his life, in his work, in his research, in the way he was with people. He was that wonderful combination of being very kind and gentle, but there was something very powerful in his presence.’’

Bryan Marquard can be reached at