Henry M. Seidel, M.D., professor emeritus of pediatrics and a former dean of students at the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine, and a master educator who shepherded generations of Hopkins medical students through their training, died at his home in Columbia, Md., on March 24. He was 87 and died of complications from lymphoma. Seidel joined the faculty of the School of Medicine in 1950 and became an attending pediatrician at The Johns Hopkins Hospital in 1953, spending his entire professional career at Hopkins. Acclaimed as a pediatrician’s pediatrician, he continued to see patients and teach students for nearly 20 years after he retired formally in 1990 at the age of 68.
In the nearly seven decades that he spent at Hopkins, Seidel became an indispensable force in the institution. He was revered by fellow pediatricians and loved by students, many of whom never ceased to seek his professional wisdom and personal advice, long after they had become physicians and faculty members.
Born in Passaic, N.J., Seidel first arrived at Johns Hopkins in 1938 as an undergraduate. He earned both his bachelor’s degree (1943) and medical degree (1946) at The Johns Hopkins University.
He did postdoctoral pediatric training at the Harriet Lane Home for Invalid Children, precursor to the present-day Johns Hopkins Children’s Center, and was one of the founding editors of the Harriet Lane Handbook, the venerable pediatrician’s reference book still in wide use today. Seidel later co-authored The Harriet Lane Home: A Model and a Gem.
For 15 years after his residency, Seidel split his time between private practice and his academic interests at Johns Hopkins. In addition to his appointments in the School of Medicine and The Johns Hopkins Hospital, he became a faculty member at the Johns Hopkins School of Public Health in 1969.
“Henry was the best that Hopkins could be,” says Edward D. Miller, M.D., dean and CEO of Johns Hopkins Medicine. “All you had to do was to look into his eyes, listen to his voice and know that you were in the presence of a wonderful person who just happened to be a doctor. He inspired medical students, house staff and faculty to be their very best and to do it with humility. I will miss seeing him walking the halls of Hopkins.”
Describing pediatrics as his vocation and his avocation, Seidel prized community pediatrics, the kind practiced on the front lines. His interest in medicine was ignited by the family doctor he saw as a child.
“After poking me a bit and looking into my ears and throat, he would pull a leather case from his bag,” Seidel wrote in a 2002 essay published in the Journal of the American Medical Association. “It was in my child’s mind’s eye huge. When opened, it presented a double row of small bottles filled with variegated pills.”
Only years later did Seidel realize that his doctor, the renowned poet William Carlos Williams, had been offering his young patients sugar pills. Years later, Dr. Williams penned a letter of recommendation for Seidel, describing him as “a boy of intelligence, industry and excellent character.”
Seidel, who served as Assistant Dean for Student Affairs at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine from 1968 to 1970 and Associate Dean from 1977 to 1990, guided future physicians not only through the labyrinth of their medical training, but also through personal crises. Former students recall that in counseling them, Seidel would sometimes use he same techniques he normally reserved for his pediatric patients.
“It worked, but I was chuckling inside that this technique he’d perfected for children worked just as well on a medical student who thought he was a grown-up,” said Hopkins alumnus Edward “Ted” Trimble, M.D., in a 2008 interview for Hopkins Medicine magazine.
“Henry was my teacher, mentor, role model, friend,” recalls John M. Freeman, M.D., professor emeritus of pediatrics and neurology at Hopkins and former chief of pediatric neurology and pediatric epilepsy at Hopkins Children’s. “He was the model of the compassionate physician and left his mark on generations of students, house staff and even faculty. He taught me to listen, to care more deeply and to be more compassionate. When in need, he was the one I could turn to. He cannot be replaced and is sorely missed.”
Seidel endeared himself to class after class of students during the angst-ridden process of national “Match Day,” a single day on which all graduating medical students in the United States learn where they will receive residency training. Historically, matches were posted for all to see, leaving a few students at risk of being embarrassed at not receiving a match. Instead, Seidel ordered individual envelopes for each student, affording more privacy. In the days leading up to Match Day, Seidel consulted hospitals around the country to find places for students who had not been matched.
Getting to know a student’s personal history, Seidel said, was just as important as getting to know a patient’s medical history. Seidel explained his approach in a 2001 essay for Hopkins Medicine magazine. Whether dealing with a 10-year-old with unexplained fever or a 22-year-old struggling with his pathology coursework, he would invariably start out with a personal “tell me about you.”
Robert Chessin, M.D., a pediatrician in Fairfield, Conn., who graduated from Hopkins in 1973, recalls Seidel’s formative influence.
“Henry Seidel was one of the most important influences on me in medical school, a true role model,” Chessin said. “He truly was the pediatrician for all of us medical students. He cared for all of us and cared about all of us. I always hoped I could live up to the type of physician and human being he was.”
“As if it were no more complicated than breathing, Henry Seidel allowed everyone he came in contact with to feel that he cared for them as an individual,” says David Nichols, M.D., vice dean for education at Johns Hopkins and professor of anesthesiology and critical care medicine and pediatrics. “It is for that reason that generations of pediatricians and students learned the ideal embodiment of the physician, because they had seen it in Henry Seidel.”
Like all good clinicians, Seidel knew that medicine is not an exact science. He taught his students that the human condition is marked by variability.He warned students of the perils of being too exact or too mechanical in their diagnosis and treatment, advising them to acknowledge uncertainty. He urged young doctors not to be afraid to share that uncertainly with their patients and to “enlist the patient as an ally in the pursuit of solutions,” he wrote in a 2007 essay for JAMA.
Taking a patient history and doing a physical exam, Seidel believed, should always involve “the story of a person, unique in time, not just a patient with a chief complaint.”
According to long-time colleagues, Seidel believed that a doctor’s mission was not only to treat the sick but also to better the system that sometimes failed those who needed it most. A true humanist, he believed empathy to be at least as important a skill for a doctor as clinical expertise and scientific knowledge.
Among his many contributions to medical education was co-authorship of a now classic textbook, Principles of Pediatrics: Health Care of the Young. Seidel and colleague Leon Gordis developed a course for the Hopkins curriculum that focused on social, economic and policy aspects of medical care.
“Henry was a nearly daily presence at resident and student conferences, and his comments and questions always forced us to think beyond the medical issues of a patient being discussed,” says Julia McMillan, M.D., director of residency training at Hopkins Children’s. “His questions reminded us that each child belonged to a society, a culture, and a family that both influenced the illness and would be influenced by it.”
As dean of students, Seidel believed in a socially diverse student body. Fearing that H.L. Mencken’s view of medicine as a rich man’s sport might be all too prophetic, Seidel argued for and encouraged careful and controlled distribution of scholarship funds.
Seidel encouraged his fellow physicians to educate lawyers, judges and legislators about children’s rights. He was an expert on the special needs of adopted children and their parents, and in the 1970s he sat on the American Academy of Pediatrics task force for the care and evaluation of thousands of Vietnamese orphans.
In 1990, at the age of 68, Seidel retired to emeritus status, but the thought of a leisurely life lacking intellectual challenges left him so anxious that he approached the director of the Department of Pediatrics to request a continuing role in the department in exchange for office space, a parking spot, a part-time secretary, but no salary. The deal was sealed. Seidel spent the next 17 years at Hopkins, attending lectures, teaching students, sitting on case conferences, seeing patients and continuing to learn. “Any age, certainly 68, is too young to stop learning,” he wrote.
Despite his vast knowledge and experience, Seidel said he had as much to learn from his younger colleagues as they did from him.
“The learning by this older pediatrician has had to be deliberate, often difficult, paced and earnest,” Seidel wrote, thanking his younger colleagues for the daily challenges they offered him as “a delicious justification just for being in it with them.”
Seidel was also an attending physician for Sinai Hospital of Baltimore between 1953 and 1968 and a part-time instructor in pediatrics at the University of Maryland.
In 1969, then Hopkins Hospital President Robert Heyssel asked Seidel to pioneer an early version of a health maintenance organization in the new town of Columbia, Md., which came to be known as the Columbia Medical Plan. He was instrumental in starting Howard County General Hospital and served on its board until his death.
Seidel also served on the board of Outer Cape Health Services on Cape Cod.
He served in the U.S. Army from 1948 to 1950. In 1966, he did a tour of duty aboard the S. S. HOPE when the famed hospital ship sailed on a teaching and treatment mission to Nicaragua. In 1971, he did a similar tour in Jamaica. Seidel also worked for the international humanitarian Project HOPE (Health Opportunities for People Everywhere) on a Navajo Reservation in Arizona.
Seidel authored or co-authored more than 70 papers and numerous books and book chapters. He was lead editor of the acclaimed Mosby’s Guide to Physical Examination for more than two decades. The seventh edition was published shortly before his death.
He was the recipient of the Outstanding Educator Award of the Maryland Association for Higher Education.
For many years, Seidel and his wife, May Ruth, divided their time between Columbia and Cape Cod.
In addition to his wife, Seidel is survived by three sons, Robert, Stuart and Steven, two daughters-in-law, Mary Seidel and Adria Steinberg, and two grandsons, Samuel Seidel and Adam Seidel.
A celebration of Henry Seidel’s life will be held on Sunday, March 28, from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. at the Vantage House, 5400 Vantage Point Road, Columbia, Md.
A memorial service will be held at Johns Hopkins sometime this spring, family members said. Please send donations to the:
Henry M. Seidel Scholarship Fund
Fund for Johns Hopkins Medicine
100 N. Charles St., Suite 217
Baltimore, MD 21201