Bennett, J. Claude MD
Distinguished University Professor Emeritus The University of Alabama at Birmingham Birmingham, Alabama Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
Jim Pittman, one of Alabama’s most respected and notable medical educators, passed away at age 87 on January 12, 2014. He was the epitome of a well-educated man who, thankfully for the rest of us, chose a career in academic medicine. Having graduated cum laude and Phi Beta Kappa from Davidson College in 1948, he proceeded to Harvard Medical School from which he graduated magna cum laude. After residency training at the Massachusetts General Hospital and scientific training at the National Institutes of Health, he worked for a time at George Washington University as an Instructor in Medicine. Dr. Tinsley R. Harrison then recruited Jim to come to Birmingham and he became his Chief Medical Resident. In fact Jim was the Chief’s last Chief Resident.
The basis was, therefore, formed for a strong and lasting relationship, which persisted throughout the life of Dr. Harrison. Indeed, Jim was the catalyst for much of the preservation of “Harrison history.” He oversaw the design and structure of the large bronze bust of Dr. Harrison that sits most impressively on University Boulevard in Birmingham. He oversaw the endowment of the Harrison Chair and several traineeships named for him. Jim never gave a speech to entering students, alumni, donors or anyone else that he didn’t mention Harrison and his unique contributions to UAB. This linkage of history was so important to Jim.
Jim Pittman was dean of the UAB School of Medicine from 1973 to 1992. That is a long time to hold such a difficult job, but he loved it, and the faculty and students loved him in return. Part of his lovable nature was his enthusiasm for so many things. Books – of every kind, source or topic. He never came to my office that he didn’t bring me a book – usually medical history or adventures – sometime the same book he brought on a previous visit.
Birds – he liked to say he was an ornithologist, but really he was just a bird watcher. But nevertheless he was among the very best. He would be pleased to know that the Birmingham Audubon Society is now part of the McWane Science Center in Birmingham.
Airplanes - he was captivated by them, but mostly he liked to fly them. He owned 2 – sometimes concurrently. His favorite was a bi-winged stearman whose wings were wooden framed, covered by canvas. It looked okay until you considered flying in it. It had 2 seats—front and back. The passenger, “me,” sits in the front while he sits in the back. There was a throttle to make the plane go fast or slow and pedals in the floor to make it go up or down, or left or right. That’s all! I knew Jim for 10 years before I agreed to “take-a-ride.” We went up to maybe 1,000 feet where it became cold. He tapped me on the shoulder and mouthed the words “Watch the propeller.”
It stopped! He had turned off the engine so of course, the next instant we began a nose dive, and the air got hotter and hotter as we fell. “This guy is gonna kill me!” I thought. At what seemed like 1 inch from the ground he restarted the motor and we pulled up. When we were finally safely on the ground, I asked him if he practiced that maneuver much. He said, “Yes, on folks like you.” It then became known—per me—that flying with Jim was just a “test of loyalty.”
The 1970’s and part of the 1980’s were the years of great expansion at UAB. The idea was to start with the basic sciences and build a world-class enterprise. Jim started with Microbiology, then Biochemistry, then Physiology and Cell Biology. His concept was that if you have great basic science – then great clinical science would follow. This allowed the concept of Interdisciplinary centers to take root and grow rapidly. It fit the then-new NIH concept of Comprehensive Centers – Cancer, Heart, Arthritis. The plan worked as Pittman & Company received almost every grant for which they applied, and we grew remarkably fast. That was smart planning and stable leadership-. He was a great recruiter and he always delivered what he promised. Consequently the faculty had tremendous faith in the wisdom and ability of Jim Pittman.
Jim had many professional awards and honors. He was a member of Alpha Omega Alpha, The Endocrine Society of America, The American College of Physicians, The American Thyroid Association, The National Board of Medical Examiners, The American Federation for Clinical Research (also served as President), The Liaison Committee on Graduate Medical Education (served as Chair), and numerous scientific committees and boards of The Veterans Administration, The NIH and The Library of Medicine.
He also served as President of the Harvard Medical Alumni Association and received honorary doctoral degrees from Davidson College and UAB as well as the Founders Medal of SSCI and the Abraham Flexner Award from AAMC.
Jim published over 120 peer-reviewed journal articles and authored a book, Diagnosis and Treatment of Thyroid Diseases. He was elected to The Alabama Academy of Honor in 1982. He has written a biography of Tinsley Harrison, which is expected to be published this year.
Dr. Pittman was preceded in death by his wife of 55 years, Dr. Constance Ming-Chung Shen Pittman. He is survived by his 2 sons, James Clinton Pittman and John Merrill Pittman, and 2 grandsons.
It is wonderful to reflect on a life well-lived.
Jim, we owe you so very much.