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December 2003

Thomas B. Fitzpatrick, MD, PhD (1919-2003)

Author Affiliations

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Arch Dermatol. 2003;139(12):1613. doi:10.1001/archderm.139.12.1613

Thomas B. Fitzpatrick, MD, PhD, often proclaimed as one of the world's leading dermatologist, died on August 16 at his home at the age of 83. He was the Professor and Chairman of the Department of Dermatology at Harvard Medical School and Chief of the Massachusetts General Hospital Dermatology Service from 1959 to 1987. During 40 years at Harvard, Fitzpatrick trained many of today's top dermatologists in academia, industry, and practice and is considered a father of modern academic dermatology.

Thomas B. Fitzpatrick, MD, PhD.

Thomas B. Fitzpatrick, MD, PhD.

Fitzpatrick graduated from the University of Wisconsin (AB), Harvard Medical School (MD), and University of Minnesota (PhD). During World War II he served in the Army Chemical Center, where he met Aaron B. Lerner, MD, PhD, and began a historical collaboration to explain pigmentation of skin. Fitzpatrick was Professor and Head of Dermatology at the University of Oregon from 1952 to 1958 before being recruited to Harvard Medical School at age 39 as its youngest Professor and Chairman.

In 1971 Fitzpatrick published the first multiauthor dermatology textbook in the United States and served as organizer and senior editor for 4 subsequent editions of this seminal book about skin and skin disease for dermatologists and nondermatologist physicians. He also organized the Color Atlas of Dermatology, a book on skin for laypersons, and 10 other scientific books about specific aspects of dermatology.

For over 50 years, Fitzpatrick was a major influence in basic and clinical research. His work resulted in more than 250 original scientific publications. His fundamental observations and creative applications of knowledge markedly advanced the understanding of pigmentation, aging, and disorders of the skin. Fitzpatrick described cutaneous markers of certain neurological disorders and many other markers and skin signs of systematic illness. He was one of the first to apply electron microscopy to study of the skin, and with colleagues discovered and named the melanosome, the basic subcellular organelle of pigmentation. He helped in defining and profiling the clinical and microscopic characteristics of early melanoma and advanced the cause of widespread screening to detect curable lesions. He and his colleagues invented oral psoralen photochemotherapy (PUVA), a treatment of psoriasis that is now used worldwide to control a variety of disabling skin diseases. He organized scientific quantitative studies of sunscreens and championed their widespread use throughout the United States and Europe.

Fitzpatrick never removed himself from the front lines of patient care. He consulted and taught in both inpatient and outpatient settings and had an unrestricted, busy, non-superspecialized practice of general dermatology. Until weeks before his death, Dr Fitzpatrick treated difficult problem cases referred from dermatologists all over the world and his own very loyal patients. He delivered primary care one on one, facing cosmetic blemishes and very sick patients with serious systemic illness. He consulted his textbook in front of patients, examined scrapings from scaly toes, performed biopsies, learned and tried new treatments, and looked at microscopic slides himself. He never refused to see any patient any time with any student or doctor.

Dr Fitzpatrick was a member of more than 20 professional societies in the United States and abroad. These include the American Academy of Arts and Science and the Institute of Medicine of the National Academy of Sciences. He was a founder of the Dermatology Foundation and served as president of the Society for Investigative Dermatology and served in leadership positions of many other academic organizations. Many of the personal qualities and specific scientific contributions that made Fitzpatrick such a powerful influence were recorded in a Festschrift issue of the Journal of Investigative Dermatology (1983;80:3s-5s).

Fitzpatrick was most honored and cherished as a teacher. Many medical students working under his supervision decided to become dermatologists. Dermatology residents were influenced for life by the content, approach, and style of his care of patients. His comments at teaching conferences were absorbed with reverence; he invariably proposed a clever action plan to solve the most difficult medical riddles. The most powerful components of Fitzpatrick's teaching style were his encyclopedic knowledge, vast experience, relentless problem solving, and his compassionate individualization of treatment.

For his contribution to the training of Japanese dermatologists and his frequent travels to Japan to lecture and teach, he was awarded the prestigious "Order of the Rising Sun" in 1987. An endowed chair at Harvard Medical School was established in his name in 1982, an honor seldom accorded to an incumbent professor.

Fitzpatrick's most contagious traits were his childlike curiosity and his genuine joy of work, wonderful gifts that were spread to dermatologists throughout the world during his half-century of dedicated service. His leadership is measured not so much by the number of people he led but by the number of leaders he created.

Dr Fitzpatrick is survived by his wife Beatrice Devaney Fitzpatrick and his 4 children, Thomas, Beatrice, Scott, and Brian as well as 3 grandchildren.