One day not long after Frank Oski arrived at Hopkins in
1985, the exuberant pediatrician and new director of the
Children's Center asked a startling question.
Why are people permitted to smoke in the hospital?
Medical centers, after all, are places of healing. Why then should life-endangering behavior be tolerated within its confines?
Although it was a question that made sense, at that time not a whole lot of other people were asking it. "But asking those kinds of questions came naturally to Frank," said Hopkins Hospital vice president of medical affairs Beryl Rosenstein, who worked closely with Oski throughout his decade-long tenure as director of the Children's Center. He died Dec. 7, of prostate cancer at age 64.
"Everybody else who worked here just sort of accepted that you couldn't prevent the doctors and nurses and worried patients and nervous relatives from smoking in the hospital. But Frank came here, looked at the situation and said, 'Let's change it!' And he did."
Oski is widely credited with starting the movement that led to a smoke-free environment at Hopkins. His many friends and admirers remember him as a man of many accomplishments.
"Frank Oski was an accomplished scientist, a great teacher and wonderful human being," said acting dean of the School of Medicine Ed Miller. "He brought tremendous energy, enthusiasm and vision to the Children's Center and to the entire East Baltimore medical campus. Whether it was outlawing smoking or cheerleading for the annual Children's Miracle Network Telethon or helping our medical students and house staff become more effective care providers, Frank threw his heart and soul into making this institution the finest in the world."
A graduate of Swarthmore College, Oski earned his medical degree in 1958 from the University of Pennsylvania and went on to complete his internship and residency there. After a fellowship at the Children's Hospital Medical Center in Boston he returned to Penn as a faculty member, eventually becoming head of the division of pediatric hematology at the Children's Hospital of Philadelphia. He left to chair the department of pediatrics at the State University of New York in Syracuse in 1972.
An internationally recognized specialist in childhood blood disorders and nutritional deficiencies, Oski was the primary or co-author of 20 books and hundreds of scholarly articles. Among those publications was his 1983 book Don't Drink the Milk, which raised a storm of controversy over his assertion that cow's milk is not good for children.
"Frank wrote that book while he was at Syracuse, surrounded by pastures full of cows. Do you have any idea what the New York dairy farmers wanted to do with him?" said Catherine DeAngelis, vice dean for academic affairs at the School of Medicine. "He never took anything at face value. He was constantly questioning conventional wisdom to ascertain if it was actually wise. Frank had a sweatshirt he liked to wear that said 'Question Authority' and that is what he did."
"Frank Oski embodied the philosophy and mission of Johns Hopkins in everything he did," said Ronald Peterson, acting president of Johns Hopkins Hospital and Health System and a former Children's Center administrator. "He was the consummate teacher; a passionate advocate for children and among the nation's best researchers into pediatric nutrition and blood disorders."
Oski's research led to better understanding of iron deficiency and its effects on behavior and learning; of the reasons premature infants become anemic; and why youngsters with sickle cell anemia have strokes. He helped define the folic acid composition of infant feedings and documented the clinical and laboratory manifestations of vitamin E deficiency.
Declining health forced Oski to retire from the Children's Center in May, but not before he had led an effort that helped redefine the institution's research, patient care and teaching missions. His guide for parents, The Practical Pediatrician, was published earlier this year.
The recipient of many awards and citations, Oski received the 1972 Mead Johnson Award for Pediatrics and the 1990 St. Geme Award for Pediatric Leadership from the Federation of Pediatric Organizations. In October, he received the Lifetime Achievement Award of the American Academy of Pediatrics. He was the senior editor of the textbook Principles and Practices of Pediatrics, considered the standard text in American pediatric training. Until his death he was editor of Contemporary Pediatrics, which he founded, and co-editor of Current Opinion in Pediatrics.
"His contributions are legendary," Rosenstein said. "He flew all over the world giving lectures, he wrote all these books and hundreds and hundreds of articles. Yet at Hopkins he still had time to devote energy to the house staff training program and working with medical students and residents."
"There is a feeling in modern academic medicine that you can't be a triple threat, that you can't be a clinician and researcher and teacher and excel at all three," DeAngelis said. "Frank came pretty close. Talk with anyone who made rounds with him, and you'll hear about the tremendous warmth and compassion and commitment he showed to patients and to those he was teaching."
An avid sports enthusiast with season tickets to the Baltimore Orioles and a box at the Pimlico Race Course, Oski is said to have harbored a not-so-secret desire to be a sports writer or sports announcer. "Sports was his grand passion," DeAngelis said. "He loved racing, baseball, football and would talk about any sport. I think being a sports newscaster would have been his second life if he'd had the chance."
He also took great delight in making people laugh. "Frank could relate to anybody. He would always begin grand rounds with some kind of joke, usually one that made everyone groan," Rosenstein said. "He'd also perform these magic tricks, although never completely correctly. I remember one with a lemon and a handkerchief that he could never get quite right. The man just had a wonderful love of life and could get excited about anything and everything."
Oski is survived by his wife, Barbara--whom he met and married at Swarthmore--daughters Jessica and Jane, and a son, Jonathan, as well as a brother, Richard, and two grandchildren.
"We were very lucky to have had Frank's vision and leadership for an entire decade," said Dean Miller of Oski's contribution to Hopkins. "His efforts changed this institution for the better, and we will always be grateful for all that he accomplished."
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