Dr. Arnold Capute, 80, pioneer of developmental pediatrics

December 02, 2003|By Michael Stroh | Michael Stroh,SUN STAFF

Dr. Arnold J. Capute, a pioneer in the study and treatment of children with developmental disabilities and member of the original staff of the Kennedy Krieger Institute, died Sunday evening at St. Joseph Medical Center of congestive heart failure. The longtime Homeland resident was 80.

When Dr. Capute arrived in Baltimore in 1965 from his native New York, few pediatricians knew how to diagnose or treat children with cerebral palsy, autism, mental retardation and other developmental disorders - an area given less respect than other areas of medicine.

Dr. Capute, colleagues say, waged a nearly 30-year battle to create a specialty within pediatrics that focused on children with developmental disorders. The field, called developmental pediatrics, was formally accredited in 1999.

"He's recognized as the father of the field," said Dr. Gary Goldstein, president of Kennedy Krieger.

Dr. Capute was a graduate of Queens College in New York and Hahnemann Medical College in Philadelphia. After completing his residency, he established a pediatrics practice on Long Island, N.Y. "He took care of the famous and the poor," said a son, Allan A. Capute of Alexandria, Va. "He never turned anybody away."

Mr. Capute recalled accompanying his father on a house call to the New York home of Robert F. Kennedy. On other occasions, Mr. Capute said, patients would drop off deer or pheasant meat as payment for medical care.

His practice was thriving, but in 1965 Dr. Capute suffered a heart attack and was advised to find less stressful work. Robert Cooke, then head of the Johns Hopkins pediatrics department, coaxed Dr. Capute to Baltimore to study child development.

"The only problem was, Arnold did not know how to do anything in a low-key or non-stressful way," Dr. Duane F. Alexander, director of the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, said in a 2002 speech about his longtime friend.

His family said it wasn't long before Dr. Capute was working seven days a week, often leaving the house at 6 a.m. and not returning until 6 p.m. or later.

Dr. Capute, colleagues say, became drawn to children with developmental disabilities, who in those days were "generally regarded as second-class citizens, considered by many physicians to be not worth the investment of time, care and resources," Dr. Alexander said in his talk.

Making disabled children the focus of his work, Dr. Capute joined the newly opened John F. Kennedy Institute for Habilitation of the Mentally and Physically Handicapped Child - now the Kennedy Krieger Institute - in 1967.

He also began to study the children, and over the years his research has led to numerous innovations in diagnosis and treatment.

By studying the natural movements of fetuses, for example, Dr. Capute was able to devise diagnostic methods for distinguishing between a healthy child and one with cerebral palsy. He also developed a test to separate children with language delays from children with developmental delays.

Dr. Capute is also credited with creating the first developmental pediatrics training program. Known as a strict but passionate teacher, he trained many of the field's early practitioners.

"Nobody ever quite met up to his expectations," said Dr. Paul Lipkin, who trained under Dr. Capute and now directs Kennedy Krieger's Center for Development and Learning.

Despite Dr. Capute's toughness, he and his students remained fiercely devoted to one another. "They were like sons to him," said Allan Capute. "They were always on the phone with my father."

Over the years, Dr. Capute won numerous awards for his teaching and research. He was also co-editor of the discipline's premier text, Developmental Disabilities in Infancy and Childhood.

Partially due to Dr. Capute's efforts, today all accredited pediatric programs require residents to gain experience with children with developmental disabilities - and research has delved more deeply into related areas of genetics and brain function.

A memorial service will be held at 10 a.m. Friday in the Cathedral of Mary Our Queen, 5200 N. Charles St.

In addition to his son, Dr. Capute is survived by his wife of 54 years, the former Louise Perkins; three other sons, Charles T. Capute of Easton and Arnold J. Capute Jr. and Richard C. Capute, both of Baltimore; and eight grandchildren.

The family suggested memorial donations to the Kennedy Krieger Institute to continue its Arnold J. Capute professorship.

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