Dr. Samuel P. Asper, 83, directed hospital in Lebanon

November 13, 1999|By Jacques Kelly | Jacques Kelly,SUN STAFF

Dr. Samuel P. Asper, a retired Johns Hopkins physician and educator who led the American University Hospital in Beirut during the civil war in Lebanon in the 1970s, died of congestive heart failure Tuesday at Johns Hopkins Hospital. He was 83 and lived in Roland Park.

While in Lebanon from 1973 to 1978, he kept the hospital open during the conflict that claimed 60,000 lives. His medical compound, which carried a large red cross, was often shelled in mortar fire. Air raids and exploding bombs disrupted his medical school classes.

"He didn't take sides among the partisans. It was a school and hospital for all the Middle East," said the Rev. Ann Asper Wilson, his daughter, of Belleville, Ill. "When the fighters came to the hospital, he had them put their guns in an umbrella rack."

Dr. Asper took the job at the time he had been serving as vice president for medical affairs at Johns Hopkins.

"Despite the war, my father projected a huge personal joy from teaching medical students in Beirut and from all over the world," said his daughter, Lucy Asper Rumpf, of Neenah, Wis. "His great pleasure was his work with students from other countries."

On a trip to Baltimore from Beirut in 1976, he described the conflict as a "very bizarre kind of civil strife." His emergency room was often overflowing with civilians who arrived bloodied and severely injured. Some of his patients hid pistols under pillows. He recorded his observations in a 1994 book, "Care Amidst Chaos."

"Beirut was in the hands of at least 15 different armed groups or militias," he wrote. "Both in and out of the hospital, a stethoscope in the pocket of one's white coat was better than a safe conduct letter, passport or identity card."

Dr. Victor A. McKusick, a Hopkins University Professor of medical genetics and former chair of medicine, said, "His was a brilliant career -- in many ways his finest hour was in Beirut. He maintained his cool and kept the medical school afloat under very difficult circumstances."

Described as a soft-spoken physician of high ethical principles and deep convictions, Dr. Asper was no stranger to war. During World War II, he served in the Fifth General Hospital, staffed by Harvard University doctors and nurses, in Ireland, England and France. After the Axis surrender, he returned to Hopkins, where he became a professor of medicine and specialized in endocrinology. In 1947, he introduced the use of radioactive iodine for the diagnosis and therapy of thyroid disorders.

He was tapped as associate dean at Johns Hopkins medical school in 1957, and began advising students from around the United States and the world.

"I wanted a person who was smart and who could do a lot of work," said Dr. Thomas B. Turner, dean emeritus of the Johns Hopkins medical faculty. "Sam Asper was a fine physician and diagnostician who has been one of Johns Hopkins' top scholars."

For many years, he assisted in the education of medical students born outside the United States. "Dr. Asper was very caring to every one of us," said Dr. Haroutune K. Armenian, Hopkins professor of epidemiology. "He was a father figure."

Born in Oak Park, Ill., Dr. Asper was the son of a Rock Island Railroad telegraph office worker. As a young man, he played the oboe and won a music scholarship to Baylor University in Waco, Texas. He entered the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine and served his internship on the Osler Medical House staff in 1940. In 1941, he went to the Thorndike Memorial Laboratory at Harvard on a fellowship in medicine.

While in Baltimore, he met Ann Carver, then a volunteer at the Hopkins pediatric department, whom he married in 1942. She survives him and lives in Roland Park.

Funeral services will be held at 11 a.m. today at Woodbrook Baptist Church, 25 Stevenson Lane, where he was an active member.

In addition to his wife and daughters, he is survived by five grandchildren.

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