Obituary: Thomas E. Allen / 'Doctor of choice' was leader of social, artistic causes
Thomas E. Allen, a towering figure, locally and nationally, in the medical field of women's health and reproductive rights, died Saturday at his Oakland home. He was 93.
Even before the Supreme Court's Roe v. Wade decision in 1973 made abortion legal, Dr. Allen was a pioneer in establishing the therapeutic abortion clinic at Magee-Womens Hospital, where women could safely end pregnancies under the care of a doctor. In 1973, he helped secure the $50,000 Planned Parenthood grant that established Women's Health Services here, for which he served as medical director from 1973 to 1994.
In the course of his long life, Dr. Allen was deeply involved in many other medical, social and artistic causes, from Common Cause to the American Civil Liberties Union, on whose Pittsburgh board he served for two decades. Dubbed "The Doctor of Choice," in more ways than one, he received an ACLU lifetime achievement award for his service to women's reproductive rights in 1998, when his friend and fellow Planned Parenthood champion Elsie Hillman wrote:
"Like so many others, I owe you such gratitude not only for standing up for your own principles but, by doing so, providing the rest of us with a leader. Your vigilance, courage and T.L.C. for those who need it most is what has endeared you to all of us."
Stephanie Birnberg, a former ACLU president and Women's Health Services counseling coordinator, described Dr. Allen as a "moral founder" of both local organizations.
Calm, courtly, cultivated Dr. Allen was also a major patron of the arts and musical life in Pittsburgh. He was president or chairman of the board of the American Wind Symphony Orchestra for 40 years and, throughout that time, "was supportive of my visions and sometimes unorthodox ideas, even when they involved taking our floating arts center to Paris, London and Leningrad," the orchestra's founder-director, Robert Boudreau, said. "On the many times he was on board Point Counterpoint II -- on the Great Lakes, San Juan or on the Hudson when the Tall Ships were celebrating Lady Liberty's 100th birthday -- we could always find Tom in the galley, cooking a gourmet meal for the crew and for our visiting dignitaries with congenial grace."
Former WQED-FM station manager Ceci Sommers recalled her first meeting with Dr. Allen as "an example of the wonderful person he was," soon after her husband, Jack, the station's founder, died in 1977 at age 44. "I got a call from Tom, whom I'd never met. He said he had listened to Jack on the radio for three years and felt as if he had lost a dear friend. He wanted to do something. I told him I wanted to keep the Three Rivers Piano Competition afloat, as Jack loved it and we were having trouble finding funding. Tom wrote a check for $1,000 on the spot and said he would get a committee together to work on more funding. Which he did -- and he supported the station generously for many years."
It was through WQED-FM that Dr. Allen met his beloved second wife, Judi Cannava, the station's longtime classical music announcer and host: "I fell in love with her beautiful voice," he once said, "and then with her." They were married in 1995.
One of 10 children born into a coal miner's family in rural West Deer, Dr. Allen was a 1940 graduate of the University of Pittsburgh, from which he also received his doctor of medicine in 1943. He served as a doctor and first lieutenant in the Army during World War II and in 1951 began his private obstetrics-gynecology practice in Oakmont and Pittsburgh. He subsequently held staff positions at Magee-Womens Hospital and a faculty post at Pitt.
Dr. Allen made national news as recently as a year ago, during the presidential primaries, when a January Newsweek story revealed that former Sen. Rick Santorum's wife, Karen, had lived with Dr. Allen for six years in her youth. The former Karen Garver was a 22-year-old nursing student when she met Dr. Allen -- then a 63-year-old divorced obstetrician with six grown children. He had been a friend of her pediatrician father and had delivered baby Karen in 1960. They broke up in 1988, after which she attended law school, met Mr. Santorum during her Kirkpatrick & Lockhart internship, and married the staunchly anti-abortion future senator in 1990.
Not least of Dr. Allen's other passions in life were fine wine and food.
Said his daughter Catherine Tai: "Our father was an inspiration to so many people and touched so many lives. He pulled himself up from an impoverished childhood to a prominent position as doctor, patron of the arts and bon vivant. He gave us all the gift of social conscience, liberal Democratic politics, and a belief in the value of hard work as well as an appreciation of food, wine and the arts. He gave us an expansive world view, and we will miss him."
In addition to Ms. Tai, of Michigan, Dr. Allen's five other children by the late Ruth Jenkins Allen are Christine Murray of Washington, D.C., Cynthia Bartholomew of Arizona, Carolyn Allen of Michigan, Thomas J. Allen of Tennessee and Candace Uricchio of Fox Chapel. He was also the stepfather of Carlo Cannava of Lake Placid, N.Y., and has eight grandchildren and two surviving siblings, Rosemary Bruce of Colorado and Charles Allen of California.
Arrangements by Patrick T. Lanigan Funeral Home of Turtle Creek are private. A memorial service is being planned and details will be announced. Memorial donations may be made to Planned Parenthood Women's Health Services of Western Pennsylvania, 933 Liberty Ave., Pittsburgh 15222.
First Published January 28, 2013 12:00 am