News your connection to The Boston Globe
Today's Globe  |   Latest News:   Local   Nation   World   |    Education   Obituaries   Special sections  

Thomas Fitzpatrick, doctor and teacher

Dr. Thomas B. Fitzpatrick was a dermatologist with an infectious enthusiasm for his specialty and a philosopher's love of a good quote. He wrote the book on modern dermatology -- "Fitzpatrick's Dermatology in General Medicine" -- and coedited the inspirational "Reflection for the Day," which has appeared in The Boston Globe for the past 20 years.

Dr. Fitzpatrick, who died Saturday at age 83 at his Lexington home, has been called "the father of modern academic dermatology." It was not hyperbole.

He was a developer of the PUVA photochemotherapy treatment used to control psoriasis and other skin disorders and the Fitzpatrick Phototype procedure for quantifying skin types and determining susceptibility to ultraviolet radiation. By doing so, he sent millions of people to the drugstore to buy sunblock.

"He was the most influential dermatologist of the last 100 years," said one former student, Dr. John A. Parrish, who succeeded Dr. Fitzpatrick as chief of the department of dermatology at Massachusetts General Hospital in 1988. "He trained most of the leaders in academic dermatology."

Dr. Fitzpatrick, who directed the dermatology department at Harvard Medical School, was born in Madison, Wis. He graduated from the University of Wisconsin and earned a doctorate at the University of Minnesota before graduating from Harvard Medical School.

"While at medical school he fell in love with skin as an organ, and he realized that dermatology was a specialty in which one man could make a difference," Parrish said. "He committed his life to its study and elevated it to a modern science."

Dr. Fitzpatrick was a master at motivating his students and sharing his enthusiasm for his specialty. "Practicing dermatologists are like the woodwind section of the orchestra -- small in number . . . when they play they must play well," he often said. Dr. Fitzpatrick was a hands-on physician who personally examined scrapings from scaly toes, performed biopsies, and looked at microscope slides -- and consequently, "experienced that humiliation, frustration, anxiety, joy, and exhaustion known only to concerned physicians who accept the responsibility for uncushioned patient contact," Parrish said.

"He could make time stop when he was thinking about a patient, he was so focused on trying to help that one person," said Dr. Jeffrey Bernhard, a former student who is now editor of the Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology.

Dr. Fitzpatrick was a man with a professorial demeanor and a mischievous wit. He kept a magnifying glass in his watch pocket, suspended by a gold chain from a button on his sports coat. When examining a patient, he brandished his eyepiece to closely examine the skin. He smoked a pipe and always carried a little black book in which he collected quotations.

He was often called upon to introduce colleagues at lectures and symposiums and was said to be the master of the left-handed compliment, pointing out their foibles as well as their accomplishments in his brief remarks.

"He was a man of great enthusiasm who was bigger than life and made the people and problems he was dealing with bigger than life, too," said another former student, Dr. Barbara Gilchrest, the current chief of dermatology at Boston University. "He saw life through the prism of the great thinkers and always had a quote he wanted to share."

He shared many of those quotations with Globe readers through the "Reflection of the Day," currently published on a Globe comics page.

He compiled the quotes with his wife, Beatrice Devaney.

Among the "great thinkers" he recently chose to quote in the "reflection" were humorists James Thurber, who once pointed out that "No man who has wrestled with a self-adjusting card table can ever be quite the man he once was," and Woody Allen, who said, "Ninety percent of life is just showing up."

Besides his wife, he leaves three sons, Thomas B. Jr. of Carlisle, and Scott and Brian, both of Medford; a daughter, Beatrice, of Phoenix; and three grandchildren.

Funeral arrangements are private. A memorial service will be held Oct. 21 at 10 a.m. in Memorial Church at Harvard University.

Globe Archives Today (free)
Yesterday (free)
Past 30 days
Last 12 months