Obituary: Bruce W. Dixon / County health leader had personal touch

Nov. 3, 1938-Feb. 20, 2013


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Bruce W. Dixon strode the local halls of power in his trademark Hush Puppies, never losing his common touch as a physical healer, medical teacher and public health protector with the less fortunate.

As head of the Allegheny County Health Department for 20 years -- the longest-serving county director in history -- he became nationally known for his progressive public health work and locally loved for his medical ministry to the poor and disenfranchised.

Everyone seemed to know him, everyone seemed to have a story about his calming bedside manner or some other kindness. Which is not to say he wouldn't dress down a patient for doing something stupid, for being disrespectful or for committing a crime.

PG archive: A day with Dr. Bruce Dixon

Dr. Bruce Dixon, who died today, was the longest-serving director of the Allegheny County Health Department. In 2009, he spent part of a day with PG photographer Rebecca Droke, which resulted in this video.

He was revered by students he taught at the University of Pittsburgh Medical School and local doctors for his intelligence, down-to-earth demeanor, humility and dedication to the profession.

He loved his department, his work and his heading what in essence was the largest medical practice in Allegheny County. And that's why, friends say, he was so devastated last year when he was ousted at the behest of County Executive Rich Fitzgerald.

Still, even at 74, he wasn't done. In fact, he recently told a friend he was exploring public health possibilities on a state level.

But early Wednesday morning, Dr. Dixon, of Forest Hills, died while undergoing surgery at UPMC Presbyterian, according to the Allegheny County Medical Examiner's office. The cause of death was a blood infection related to cholecystitis, an inflammation of the gall bladder, the medical examiner's office reported.

Reports of the death of an indefatigable doctor who worked hours that would exhaust a man half his age shocked those in the medical community, government and the public.

Mr. Fitzgerald, who reportedly wasn't happy with how Dr. Dixon handled grading of restaurants, diesel-idling regulations and permits for air pollution, among other issues, only hinted at that in a statement in which he called him "the ultimate public servant."

"While we differed in how the Health Department should move forward, the service he provided was admired and will not be forgotten soon."

His successor, interim Health Department director Ronald Voorhees, said Dr. Dixon had a "tremendous impact. He instituted a number of innovative programs.

"He ably led public health. He was a leader and really was a very committed, very gifted and bright physician who really cared about providing good service to the people of the county."

Former county Executive Dan Onorato said, "The community owes him a debt of gratitude."

And Jim Roddey, also a former county executive, said: "He was highly regarded nationwide as a public health expert. He really was very good at what he did. He was just a good guy, a wonderful guy to work with."

As for being ousted from the health director's post, Dr. Dixon took it hard, Mr. Roddey said.

"I think it affected him a lot, a lot more than he would let on. He was very distressed by it. He loved that job, he loved the people, he really liked what he did."

Cyril H. Wecht, the former county coroner and renowned forensic pathologist who knew Dr. Dixon for 40 years, said that for his friend -- a lifelong bachelor with no siblings -- his work was his life.

"This was his whole life. It crushed him. It was heartbreaking," Dr. Wecht said. "He was very sad, very, very disconsolate. He told me he did not understand why he was never afforded the opportunity to confront his critics, to sit down and discuss this.

"He was nationally recognized but was totally unpretentious, not a grandstander. It is extremely sad and most regrettable the way he was ousted.

"I think people will remember Bruce as a dedicated public servant who provided very important medical expertise and never sought any. . . personal recognition and had no agenda of his own. His dedication combined with his medical knowledge and expertise were used to improve the quality of life and provide increased health safety for all of Allegheny County."

George Brett, who was chief resident at Pitt under Dr. Dixon, said he and other physicians were mourning the death of a "legend."

"This has been hanging over me all day since I heard the news. This isn't just like one of your teachers dying and you feel badly. I feel awful," said Dr. Brett.

"He was the smartest person I knew but also was a gifted teacher. They say most doctors practice within 30 or 40 miles of where they did their residency. If that's true, there are so many doctors in this area who trained at UPMC under Bruce who are grieving. He touched everyone like he touched me."

Longtime friend Marc Cherna, director of the county Department of Human Services, said no one "followed the Hippocratic Oath better than Bruce. 24/7 he was helping people who had the least. Seven days a week he would see patients free of charge, but no one knew about it. His dedication in helping people is unparalleled.

"Bruce was unique. He had varied interests, was very, very smart and truly was an extraordinary person who will be greatly missed."

Dr. Dixon was a familiar presence for the public because of his frequent media appearances with his 1950s era crew-cut blond hair, wire-rimmed glasses and attire of a skinny black tie and white shirt with monogrammed French cuffs.

Dr. Dixon never planned a career in public health, or even medicine. His father was the Pittsburgh office freight agent for Reading Railroad, and his mother was a homemaker. The family lived in Forest Hills.

He attended Pitt on a full scholarship in the Latin and Greek classics after graduating from Wilkinsburg High School in 1956. He fulfilled the scholarship's requirements but planned to pursue a doctorate in chemistry. But in his senior year he decided to follow in the footsteps of an uncle who was an ophthalmologist and attend medical school.

He excelled in medical school at Pitt, settling on internal medicine as a speciality. He did his internship at Duke University, a year of residency at Pitt, a two-year Vietnam-era stateside tour as an Air Force doctor and returned to Duke, where he was named chief resident.

He then joined the faculty, where his interest in health care for minorities was forged by the sight of abject poverty and what he said was "dehumanizing" racism in the South.

He joined the Pitt faculty in 1975, returning to Pittsburgh because his parents were getting older, and "I'm a Pittsburgher."

Dr. Dixon's foray into public health began in 1979 when Pitt agreed that he could work one day a week at the Health Department's Sexually Transmitted Disease clinic. His workload there increased to three days a week in the mid-1980s with the advent of AIDS; he eventually became head of the county's sexually transmitted disease program.

When then-Health Department director Albert Brunwasser retired in 1992, Dr. Dixon was offered the job. He was happy teaching and turned it down. But he was summoned to a meeting with the late county Commissioner Tom Foerster, Pitt's chancellor and vice chancellor for medicine, and the head of the county health board.

"You're the new Health Department director," they told him.

With a deep voice, Dr. Dixon was fast with a quip for employees, patients and anyone he encountered. His interests ranged from attending doo-wop concerts to his 60-year collection of doo-wop music to woodworking and metal working to owning eight cars -- most of them vintage, including a 1967 Corvette he bought that year. He spent 28 years restoring a 119-year-old former steel baron's mansion and he collected rare skipper butterflies in the wilds of North Carolina and elsewhere. He also played piano and pipe organ.

Friends will be received Friday from 2 to 8 p.m. at Wolfe Memorial Inc., Forest Hills Chapel, 3604 Greensburg Pike. A memorial service will be held Saturday at 11 a.m. at St. James Church, Wilkinsburg.

Contributions are suggested for medical student scholarships at Pitt Medical School.

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Michael A. Fuoco: mfuoco@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1968. First Published February 21, 2013 5:00 AM


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