Obituary: Dr. Robert Pontius / Pioneering heart surgeon at Children's Hospital

Died April 12, 2014

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In the 1950s, surgery on children with congenital heart disorders was rarely done. Many surgeons, discouraged by the high failure rate, left the field.

Not Robert Pontius, who persevered.

A year after coming to Children's Hospital of Pittsburgh in 1957 to be a pediatric cardiothoracic surgeon, Dr. Pontius performed the first successful open-heart operation using a pump-oxygenator, a new machine that did the work of both the heart and the lungs.

Dr. Pontius, formerly of Fox Chapel, died April 12 of heart failure at a hospice in Worcester, Mass., where he'd moved in 2012 to be near his son. He was 90.

"He was one of the pioneers," said Frederic Sherman, a pediatric cardiologist at Children's. "That operation brought Pittsburgh into the era of open-heart surgery, and it took a lot of nerve to do it, a special kind of person. These babies were clearly really sick, and we knew what we should do for them, but the mortality rate was very high."

Known as a direct, detail-oriented surgeon with a photographic memory, he sustained a deep connection to his young patients.

"His dedication and his continued interest in their lives in the years after the surgery was remarkable," said Lee Beerman, a cardiologist at Children's and professor of pediatrics at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine. In fact, Dr. Pontius made it a point to ask them to come in to see him as adults to check on their progress.

"He really loved kids," added his daughter, Joan Pontius, of Ellicott City, Md., and despite a busy schedule always made time for his own five children when they were young.

"We used to wake him up early in the morning to play poker," she said, adding that he took the large wooden crate used to ship the pump oxygenator and transformed it into a playhouse.

Another childhood memory: "He would film his surgical procedures and bring them home to preview. So we all have memories of being with him in our dark basement, watching surgical movies," she said.

By nature an optimistic person, Dr. Pontius had three surgical mottos, his daughter added, "'First of all, do no harm,' 'Everybody makes mistakes' and 'Never say 'Oops!' "

A native of Palmerton, Carbon County, Dr. Pontius grew up in Greensburg, attended Mercersburg Academy and graduated from Haverford College. During World War II, he served in the Navy and participated in the Navy's V-12 officer training program, attending Swarthmore College and the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine.

He later served in Korea, where he wrote regular letters home to his family matter-of-factly describing difficult conditions on the battlefield and his surgical challenges in the shadow of "the barren, foreboding North Korea mountains, with their distant rumble of guns." His family published them as a book, titled "Dear Everybody."

Dr. Pontius did his surgical training at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston, where he worked with Dr. Michael Debakey and Dr. Denton Cooley, two surgeons and professional rivals who would go to become household names in the post-war field of heart surgery.

At Harvard Medical School, Dr. Pontius trained under his uncle, Dr. Robert Gross of Children's Hospital in Boston, another legend. Dr. Gross performed the first surgical correction of a congenital malformation that causes abnormal blood flow between two of the major arteries connected to the heart.

After a legal dispute with Children's in 1975, Dr. Pontius curtailed his surgical practice but continued to regularly attend surgical conferences at the hospital, and was considered a reservoir of knowledge about the field of surgery to correct children's heart defects, Dr. Beerman said.

"He had a photographic mind," added Si Pham, professor of surgery at the University of Maryland School of Medicine, who did his residency at UPMC. "He could remember every detail of an operation he'd performed years before, as if it were yesterday. It was amazing."

But more than that, "he taught me how to be a good surgeon and a good human being."

Besides his daughter Joan, he is survived by three other daughters, Helen King of Churchill; Diane Pontius of Cambridge, Mass.; Louisa Wunder of Poughkeepsie, N.Y.; and a son, Robert Gilmore Pontius Jr., also of Worcester.

There will be a memorial service at 2 p.m. May 6 at Heinz Chapel in Oakland, followed by a reception at the University Club from 4 to 7 p.m. Funeral arrangements are by Rice Funeral Home in Worcester.


Mackenzie Carpenter: mcarpenter@post-gazette.com, 412-263-1949 or Twitter @MackenziePG.


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