Dr. Maria Simonson, 83, created weight, stress clinic at Hopkins

February 16, 2003|By Jacques Kelly | Jacques Kelly,SUN STAFF

Dr. Maria Simonson, who created a health, weight and stress clinic at the Johns Hopkins Hospital, died Wednesday at her Westminster home of complications from a stroke. She was 83.

Co-author of the book The Complete University Medical Diet, she ran a multidiscipline weight-loss program at Hopkins and was a health and stress consultant to airlines and other industries until retiring about 15 yeas ago.

Born Maria Day in Shanghai, she was raised in Turkey and Greece where her father, a U.S. Navy admiral, was posted. After doctoral studies at Duke University and the University of Pennsylvania, family members said, she moved to Hopkins in 1955 to study with W. Horsley Gantt, a student of Russian physiologist Ivan Pavlov.

She became an assistant professor of biochemical and biophysical sciences in the department of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at the School of Medicine. Her initial research was in maternal malnutrition -- diet deficiencies in pregnant women.

In 1968, after a bout of bad heath, Dr. Simonson's weight had ballooned to more than 300 pounds. She joined a commercial weight-loss class at $3 per visit being offered at Hopkins, but after three weekly meetings the organization departed, saying it couldn't make enough money.

"By that time, we were so motivated we had to keep on with it ourselves," she said in a 1983 Sun interview. "But it was not long before we realized we needed more structure and professionalism."

She obtained help from sympathetic Hopkins administrators, dietitians, psychologists, physicians and social workers.

"We wanted to understand some of the reasons why we overate," she said in the newspaper interview.

She said that the group succeeded beyond initial expectations. The physicians of participants were impressed with their weight losses. Soon, Hopkins approved a Health, Weight and Stress Clinic, which Dr. Simonson directed at the School of Hygiene and Public Health.

"She joined me in the study of motivated behaviors -- she was interested in hunger, specifically, and drives like thirst and sleep, generally," said Dr. Paul McHugh, former Johns Hopkins psychiatrist in chief. "She very much appreciated the individual patient's suffering and brought it to everyone's attention as we were trying to help them. She was kindly to people struggling to grow thin."

Dr. Simonson estimated in 1983 that in her first 15 years at Hopkins and as a private consultant -- she advised Pan American Airlines to create a weight and health program for flight attendants -- she had 40,000 persons in the plan she designed. She found the overwhelming majority were overweight because of emotional reasons.

Dr. Simonson never distributed standardized diet lists. "A diet is as individual as a toothbrush," she said.

Friends said Dr. Simonson was not a zealot about calorie reduction. She often made Christmas cinnamon loaf cakes as gifts.

An animal lover -- at her death, she had 30 cats, and at other times even more -- she also volunteered at the American Red Cross Carroll County Disaster Action Team.

Funeral services are private.

She is survived by her husband of 54 years, retired Army Col. Gordon Simonson.

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