In Memoriam: Brendan Phibbs, MD

Sunday, May 1, 2016

Brendan Phibbs, MD, a cardiologist who was a member of the College of Medicine founding faculty, a medical pioneer, and an author whose World War II memoir was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize, died on March 5, 2016. He was 99.

Brendan Pedraic Pearse Phibbs was born December 3, 1916, in New York City. He grew up in Chicago, where he earned his medical degree from Northwestern University in 1941. He served as a combat surgeon in the 12th Armored Division of the United States Army from 1942-1945, fighting through the Battle of the Bulge and earning two Bronze Stars. A major, he was one of the first American physicians to volunteer in the typhus-ravaged Dachau concentration camp. Dr. Phibbs wrote a memoir of his World War II experiences, “The Other Side of Time,” which was published in 1987. The book was awarded the PEN West Award for Nonfiction and was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize in non-fiction.

After the war, Dr. Phibbs completed his residency in internal medicine at Presbyterian-Saint Luke’s Hospital in Chicago and earned a Master of Science degree in physiology. In 1971, he moved to Tucson to join the Section of Cardiology at the newly built UA College of Medicine. He became chief of cardiology at the Pima County hospital in 1975, and helped start a new county hospital, called Kino Community Hospital – now Banner-University Medical Center South – in 1977. He served there as chief of medicine until his retirement in 2006.

Dr. Phibbs established Tucson’s first mobile cardiac care unit, and traveled many times to the Tohono O’odham and Navajo reservations, where he held free cardiology clinics. He developed a throat-culture screening program for strep for the Tohono O’odham Reservation in Sells, where rheumatic heart disease was then leading cause of death. He had established a similar program during the 1950s in Wyoming, where he moved with his family in 1952, to practice internal medicine and cardiology for 20 years in Casper. He led a crusade against silicosis and lung cancer among miners, resulting in industry-wide health standards to protect the workers.

“Brendan was one of the most interesting and accomplished individuals that I have ever met,” said Gordon A. Ewy, MD, professor emeritus of cardiology and director emeritus of the UA Sarver Heart Center.

“He was a hero in World War II, and a pioneer in several areas of cardiology, including the development of a system to prevent rheumatic fever and thus rheumatic heart disease, and one of the first to advocate treadmill testing before hospital discharge of all patients with a heart attack,” Dr. Ewy said. “He was the best teacher of electrocardiography, and had a collection of almost every arrhythmia known.

“And he was a personal friend. One of the highlights of Priscilla (Ewy) and my experiences with Brendan was taking him back to Europe to visit areas where he had fought in World War II. He was a true renaissance man.”

In 2012, Dr. Phibbs received the Pima County Medical Foundation’s Furtherance of Medical Education award. In 2007, he received the Herbert K. Abrams Award for his life-long commitment to public health. He authored several cardiology texts. Penny Phibbs, his wife of 34 years, died in Tucson in 1975. He married Liana Fernandez de Castro in 1982, and they shared their passions for literature, art and the outdoors until her death in 2011. 

“On the few occasions I met Dr. Phibbs, it was clear he was an accomplished and inspirational man, and a great cardiologist,” said Nancy K. Sweitzer, MD, PhD, professor of medicine, chief of cardiology, and director, University of Arizona Sarver Heart Center. “This is truly a loss to the Sarver Heart Center and the Tucson community.”

Dr. Phibbs is survived by his brother, Roderic Phibbs, MD (Jane); daughter Susan Breznay (George); son Henry Phibbs (Leslie Pedersen); daughter Judith Phibbs; son Hugh Phibbs (Joan Warburton); seven grandchildren; and four nephews.