Spotlight shone early, often on Solomon THE RISE AND FALL OF DR. NEIL SOLOMON

'HE WAS A POLITICAL ANIMAL'

October 31, 1993|By Sandy Banisky | Sandy Banisky,Staff Writer

Dr. Neil Solomon once reveled in public attention. For nearly 10 years, as Maryland's first health secretary, he moved contentedly through a self-generated mist of publicity.

Day after day, he was in the news, hunting Medicaid fraud, warning of salmonella outbreaks, backing the legalization of abortion. He was the most visible member of Gov. Marvin Mandel's cabinet, resented by some colleagues for his high profile and his penchant for getting the governor's ear.

Some in the State House called him bright, energetic, committed. Others called him a grandstander.

"He ingratiated himself," says Frank DeFilippo, who was Mr. Mandel's chief of staff. "He was a political animal."

Born in Pittsburgh on Feb. 27, 1932, Neil Solomon grew up in a family of five children in a lower-middle-class neighborhood in Canton, Ohio. He played three sports in high school and took up Golden Gloves boxing as "Spider Solomon."

He began college at 16 and graduated in 1954. During the next decade, he earned an M.D., a masters degree and a doctorate. By 1967, his University of Maryland studies of obese patients were drawing notice.

The next year, then-Gov. Spiro Agnew named him head of a 74-member health planning council.

When Marvin Mandel became governor, Dr. Solomon stayed on as an adviser. In April 1969, Mr. Mandel created the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene and named Dr. Solomon its first secretary.

At first, Dr. Solomon's notices were good. But political skepticism began to grow in 1972, with the publication of his first diet book, written with Sally Sheppard, "The Truth About Weight Control: How to Lose Excess Pounds Permanently."

Suddenly, Dr. Solomon was more than a visible cabinet member. Now he was a national diet expert. The Book-of-the-Month Club offered his book. National magazines featured his articles on weight loss.

Unlikely as it might have seemed, Maryland's health secretary became a pop figure of sorts, making the rounds of television shows to discuss dieting.

He sat next to Johnny Carson on "The Tonight Show." He appeared on "Today." He chatted with Mike Douglas and Dick Cavett and David Susskind. He and Burt Reynolds shared the spotlight on one of Dinah Shore's shows.

All this, he assured leaders in Annapolis, he could do while running his private practice, serving on medical school faculties, airing weekly television and radio programs, and managing the 15,000 employees of the state health department.

Dr. Solomon insisted that his television appearances were "great for the state's image." But the Mandel administration was growing impatient. Former health department aides said he had handed over control to unqualified deputies while he promoted himself.

In 1975, the state medical society narrowly rejected a no-confidence vote, after several members complained he was a part-time secretary.

An investigative task force appointed by Mr. Mandel in 1975 found "the lack of confidence in existing management is irreversible."

Despite Dr. Solomon's contention that he worked 60- to 70-hour weeks, the task force concluded that he usually arrived at the office between 2:30 p.m. and 3:30 p.m. four days a week and left by 6 p.m. On the fifth day, he reportedly worked eight hours.

In the face of continuing calls for the secretary's ouster, Mr. Mandel decided not to fire Dr. Solomon, who vowed to be a better manager.

In 1976, he published another book, "Dr. Solomon's Easy, No Risk Diet," written with Sun reporter Mary Knudson, and began a six-day-a-week medical advice column. The nationally syndicated column was ghost-written by Baltimore free-lancer Harry Finkelstein.

In the 1978 campaign, both candidates for governor promised, if elected, that they would dismiss Dr. Solomon.

His reaction was jaunty. "I think it's nifty," he told a newspaper. "I've never been a campaign issue before."

When Harry R. Hughes was inaugurated governor in 1979, Dr. Solomon left state government. He and his wife, Frema, parents of three sons, lived in Mount Washington while the doctor expanded his private practice.

But the doctor never became a truly private figure. His articles on dieting, allergies and smoking continued to run in national magazines.

As recently as last January, Dr. Solomon's Slice of Life diet was featured in The National Enquirer. "LOSE WEIGHT AND NEVER FEEL HUNGRY," the headline said.

And Dr. Solomon slowly began to resurrect his political life. In recent years, Gov. William Donald Schaefer named him head of state commissions on AIDS, health care reform and drug and alcohol abuse. Then Mr. Schaefer encouraged the doctor to run for governor.

In July, the first of three former patients filed lawsuits alleging sexual misconduct. In a Sept. 2 letter to the governor, Dr. Solomon resigned from the state panels but vowed to fight the "outrageous" allegations.

A few days later, he canceled an appearance before a political club. The campaigning was over.

Later in September, the syndicate dropped his national column. In October, he filed for bankruptcy. "Phantom accusers," he had protested, were smearing him. In a statement released earlier this month, he said he was surprised at how much publicity the allegations drew. "Before I knew it, I was proven guilty in the court of public opinion."

Last week, he admitted to a state medical board that he had sexual relations with at least eight patients in the past 20 years. He surrendered his license.

Dr. Neil Solomon was on the front page again.

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