When then-University of Pittsburgh Chancellor Edward H. Litchfield, with Richard Mellon’s financial support, invited Albert B. Ferguson Jr. to found a Pitt Department of Orthopaedic Surgery in 1954, the New York City native and Harvard Medical School faculty member wasn’t so sure about Pittsburgh.
His association with the city was “zero,” said his son, Sanford Ferguson, 67, of Somerset County. “He had to get a map to see where Pittsburgh was.”
But from Harvard to Pittsburgh he would go, and as can happen when opportunity knocks and skilled people open doors, Dr. Ferguson would create an orthopaedic surgery program of international acclaim and serve many years as Pirates physician. Current department chairman Freddie Fu said Dr. Ferguson became “a triple threat as a surgeon, researcher and teacher.”
“I would say he was a surgeon among surgeons,” Dr. Fu said. “Every surgeon looked upon him as a leader. He was a visionary with good leadership skills, and he always picked out people who would grow to be successful in their careers. He knew how to steer people in the right direction.”
Dr. Ferguson would remain chairman of orthopaedic surgery at Pitt until he retired in 1986, with career highlights that included a new method to repair hip dislocations in infants and the invention of the I-beam nail to repair hip fractures, which still is in use and even serves as the Pitt department logo.
His residency and training programs proved so successful that as many as 50 medical residents eventually would hold department chairmanships or leadership positions throughout the field of orthopaedic surgery. The cover of a PittMed magazine two years ago showed the impressive tree of influence blooming from the Pitt program since 1954.
“By him coming to Pittsburgh, the landscape changed in the field,” Dr. Fu said. “He set a high standard that the department works to maintain to capture the best talent. He was an international influence.”
Dr. Ferguson, 95, of Fox Chapel and Upper Turkeyfoot, Somerset County, died Wednesday.
Born into “an eccentrically brilliant family,” young Albert was a standout baseball and football player before heading to Dartmouth College to begin a medical career, but World War II found him in the South Pacific, where the Marine secreted from island to island to do enemy surveillance, his son said. His job was to climb a tree with binoculars to spot the Japanese, with his partner as the only protection for the sitting duck.
A torpedo would destroy a boat on which he was traveling island to island, leaving him with leg injuries. He refused to discuss the traumatic episode later in life. During the war, he married Louise Enequist Ferguson, who died in March 2012 after 70 years of marriage.
Back from the war, he enrolled at Harvard Medical School, graduated first in his class and accepted a faculty position there.
Once in Pittsburgh, Dr. Ferguson turned the orthopaedic division into a full department, with residency and research programs. With his interest in sports and friendship with then-Pirates General Manager Joe L. Brown, Dr. Ferguson served for decades as team physician, and he would become a pioneer in sports medicine. The sports medicine textbook he wrote in the 1970s helped establish that field and inspire Dr. Fu, whose noted career in sports medicine includes serving as the physician for University of Pittsburgh sports and Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre.
“People can be intelligent but with extremely good people skills,” Dr. Fu said. “He could communicate well and bring out the best in a person. That’s the key. He knew how to put you in the right direction, and that’s why his program now has people all over the world.”
From Mr. Ferguson’s perspective, the key to his father’s success lay in helping people regain body function from conditions and injuries. “He operated on a hell of a lot of people in the Pittsburgh region,” he said.
Dr. Ferguson served as president of various orthopaedic organizations, and eventually British and Japanese orthopaedic associations would honor him. In 2006, the American Orthopaedic Association honored him, then their Pennsylvania Medical Society gave him the Distinguished Service Award in 2007.
Finding refuge from work, Dr. Ferguson operated a 300-acre farm in southwestern Somerset County. Initially, he raised polled Hereford cows before the poor market for beef turned his attention to raising trees. He planted many thousands of trees in recent decades with the farm becoming his focus in retirement.
Mr. Ferguson said his father instilled a strong work ethic into his three sons and now-deceased daughter Laurie. Straightforward and topic-driven, he generally was “charming with a twinkle in his eye, with a quick laugh and genuine interest in people.”
Dr. Ferguson also is survived by two other sons, Gary Ferguson of Barrington, R.I., and Bruce Ferguson of Athens, Ga.; 13 grandchildren; and one great-grandchild.
Memorial services will begin at 10:30 a.m. Aug. 30 at Fox Chapel Presbyterian Church, with funeral arrangements through the Weddell-Ajak Funeral Home in Aspinwall. The family suggests contributions to the University of Pittsburgh Albert Ferguson Orthopaedic Resident Education Fund at the Medical and Health Science Foundation, University of Pittsburgh, 3600 Forbes Ave, Suite 8084, Pittsburgh, PA 15213.
David Templeton: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1578.