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OBITUARIES / Ralph D. Feigin, 1938 - 2008

Pediatrician led buildup of Baylor, Texas hospital

August 29, 2008|Thomas H. Maugh II | Times Staff Writer

Dr. Ralph D. Feigin, the pediatrician who built the Baylor College of Medicine and Texas Children's Hospital into major teaching and research institutions and who wrote the book on children's infectious diseases, died Aug. 14 at The Methodist Hospital in Houston. He was 70.

Although he was not a smoker, Feigin had been battling lung cancer for 10 months. He had entered the hospital the previous weekend to undergo an experimental treatment.

When Feigin joined Baylor in 1977, the pediatrics department was a backwater with 39 faculty members and federal research funding totaling a mere $355,000 per year. The affiliated Texas Children's Hospital averaged about 7,000 inpatients per year, 9,000 outpatients and 9,000 emergency room visits.

Under Feigin's leadership as chairman of the department of pediatrics, physician-in-chief at Texas Children's and ultimately president and chief executive of Baylor, the department has become the nation's largest and one of its best, with 539 faculty members and annual federal funding of $89 million. The hospital serves 22,000 inpatients, 500,000 outpatients and 85,000 emergency room visitors each year.

Feigin trained more than 2,000 pediatricians and pediatric specialists. Among those, two became medical school deans, 22 became associate deans, 10 became pediatric department chairmen, and 180 became pediatric section heads.

Feigin prided himself on knowing all of Baylor's medical students and pediatric residents. Every month, he and his wife, psychologist Judith Zobel Feigin, hosted two birthday parties -- one for medical students with birthdays that month and one for residents.

Blessed with an encyclopedic memory, Feigin routinely stunned students with his knowledge of infectious diseases and diagnostic principles. Despite his busy administrative schedule, he conducted teaching rounds twice a week, called "stump Feigin" sessions, in which students would present him with their most perplexing cases.

Without consulting any reference materials, Feigin would lead the residents through the diagnostic steps required and all the possible causes of the patients' illnesses. The goal, he said, was to teach the students how to find a diagnosis quickly and cost-effectively.

Reflecting his acumen, Feigin received the Senior Class Outstanding Teacher Award at Baylor every year from 1979 to 1986.

His vast knowledge is also reflected in the two-volume text he co-edited and wrote with Dr. James D. Cherry of UCLA, "Textbook of Pediatric Infectious Diseases." Now in its sixth edition, the 3,500-page book assists diagnosticians in addressing diseases of the eye, respiratory system and other organs, as well as providing comprehensive information about infections and their treatment.

The text is considered the gold standard in the field.

Ralph David Feigin was born in New York City on April 3, 1938. He graduated from Columbia College in New York City in 1958 and received his medical degree from the Boston University School of Medicine in 1962.

After a stint at the United States Army Institute of Infectious Diseases in Frederick, Md., he joined the Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis. While there, he performed unusual research on how the time of day affected both bacterial infection and vaccination. He found that in mice, for example, bacteria produced the least damage to the host if the infection was initiated at 4 in the morning.

Feigin also led an active public life, lobbying the state of Texas to extend the Children's Health Insurance Program to the maximum number of children and Medicaid to the maximum number of indigent mothers. He and his colleagues also organized vaccination clinics when infectious disease outbreaks occurred.

A workaholic, Feigin showed up at the hospital at 5:30 every morning and took a briefcase full of work home with him at night.

But he still found time to run as much as six miles three or four times a week and, despite his 5-foot, 8-inch height, play basketball.

Feigin had announced earlier this year that he had long ago decided to step down from his administrative posts on his 70th birthday.

In addition to his wife of 48 years, Feigin is survived by a son, Michael, of The Woodlands, Texas; two daughters, Debra Sukin of The Woodlands and Susan Harris of Houston; a sister, Carol Bierman of Lansdale, Penn.; and six grandchildren.

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thomas.maugh@latimes.com

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