The Johns Hopkins Gazette: July 21, 2003
July 21, 2003
VOL. 32, NO. 40


Benjamin Baker, 'Renaissance' physician, dies at 101

By Karen Blum
Johns Hopkins Medicine

Johns Hopkins Gazette Online Edition

Benjamin M. Baker Jr., a former Baltimore internist, part-time physician at Johns Hopkins and medical consultant to Gen. Douglas MacArthur, died of ischemic cardiomyopathy July 14 at his home in Baltimore. He was 101.

Known as a master diagnostician and considered a Renaissance physician by colleagues, Baker was among the first to study the link between diet and coronary heart disease. The well-known physician, who practiced from the 1930s through the 1960s, pioneered the use of the ballistocardiogram in the diagnosis and evaluation of heart disease. The technique involves recording the displacement of the body produced by the ejection of blood with each heart beat.

Benjamin M. Baker Jr. in 1976

Baker's interests later turned to colon cancer, and he helped funnel contributions into basic science studies of the disease. He established the Hopkins Bowel Tumor Working Group in the early 1980s. Convinced that the mysteries of colon cancer could best be solved by a team approach, Baker recruited the best minds at Johns Hopkins in oncology, pathology, medical genetics, molecular biology and gastroenterology. More than 100 scientific articles resulted from its work, among them landmark articles that explained the molecular genetics of colon cancer.

During his numerous years in medicine, he treated many celebrities, including the actor Clark Gable and writers H.L. Mencken and F. Scott Fitzgerald.

Though he was invited to head Johns Hopkins' Cardiovascular Division of the Department of Medicine upon completing his residency at the Medical School, Baker chose to join the private practice of Louis Hammond and Charles Wainwright, two of Baltimore's best clinicians at the time. Nonetheless, he maintained an appointment at The Johns Hopkins Hospital and, starting in 1930, volunteered there six mornings a week providing patient care and teaching. He was an instructor and assistant professor of medicine from 1931 to 1951 and was promoted to associate professor in 1951 and to full professor in 1965. From 1967 on, he was professor emeritus.

"He was a magnificent man. He had it all," says Richard S. Ross, a former dean and chief of Cardiology at The Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine. "He was endowed with the charm of a Virginia gentleman, the easy grace of an athlete and the intellect of a medical scientist and physician. He was a role model for generations of Hopkins students and residents."

Born in Norfolk, Va., to a prominent physician father who made house calls from a horse and buggy, Baker received his bachelor's degree in 1922 from the University of Virginia and his master's degree in 1925 from Oxford University, where he was a Rhodes Scholar from 1922 to 1925. At both universities he excelled academically and athletically, breaking records in track. At Oxford he raced with the runners portrayed in the award-winning 1982 film Chariots of Fire.

He and another Rhodes Scholar friend were accepted to medical school at both Johns Hopkins and Harvard. "To decide where we would go, we tossed a shilling," Baker said in a 2002 interview with Johns Hopkins Magazine. "It landed on the Hopkins option."

Baker earned his medical degree from Johns Hopkins in 1927 after just two years of study. He spent four years at The Johns Hopkins Hospital as an intern and then chief resident at a time when residents were fully in charge of the hospital at night. One of the many problems he addressed was an epidemic of typhoid fever that depleted Hopkins' medical staff. The outbreak eventually was traced to a hospital kitchen worker.

In 1939, he married Julia Scott Clayton of Houston. Clayton's parents supported Baker's research and established an endowment known as the Clayton Fund for Johns Hopkins Medicine. His wife died on Aug. 2, 2000.

During World War II, Baker served as chief of medical services for Hopkins' 18th General Hospital in the Fiji Islands. He studied malaria, leading a team that worked on the use of atabrine as a malaria prophylactic. After three years of duty, he was headed home when Gen. Douglas MacArthur intervened. Baker was dispatched in 1945 to MacArthur's headquarters in Manila to serve as chief consultant in medicine as U.S. forces began to invade Japan. Baker was awarded the Legion of Merit and five combat stars for his work. Upon his return to Baltimore after the war, Baker became chairman of the Private Ward Committee at The Johns Hopkins Hospital.

Baker received numerous honors throughout his career, including an honorary doctor of laws degree from Johns Hopkins in 1974 and the Medical Alumni Service Award from Johns Hopkins in 1983. In recognition of the many years of service that he and his colleague Louis Hamman devoted to the general medicine clinic at Johns Hopkins, the facility was named in their honor in 1975.

Baker played bridge until he was 100 and was an excellent golfer, shooting his age at 80. He organized what became known as "The Baker Open" at the Elkridge Club, where he would pair up golfers who showed up each week, collected an "entrance fee" and handed out the winnings at the end of the round. He was a member of the Church of the Redeemer, where his brother, Richard Henry Baker, served as rector for many years.

He is survived by four children: daughters Susan Baker Powell and Julia Baker Schnupp, both of Baltimore, and sons Benjamin M. III, of Southport, Conn., and William C. of Baltimore; nine grandchildren; and six great grandchildren. William Baker is one of three vice chairmen of the Johns Hopkins Medicine board of trustees.

A memorial service will be held at 11 a.m. on Sept. 13 at the Church of the Redeemer, 5603 N. Charles St. Memorial gifts may be made to The Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine for the Dr. Benjamin Baker Scholar Endowment, or to the Church of the Redeemer.