John N. Diaconis

The professor served as acting chairman of the UM medical school's radiology department

April 03, 2009|By Frederick N. Rasmussen | Frederick N. Rasmussen,

John Nicholas Diaconis, a Baltimore radiologist and medical professor who had been acting chairman of the department of radiology at the University of Maryland School of Medicine during the 1970s, died Sunday of cholangiocarcinoma, a cancer of the bile ducts, at Gilchrist Hospice Center. The longtime Timonium resident was 74.

Dr. Diaconis was born in Pittsburgh and moved with his family to Folcroft Street in East Baltimore after his parents established an Eastern Avenue bakery.

He was a 1951 graduate of City College and earned a bachelor's degree from the University of Maryland in 1955.

He attended graduate school for several years before entering the University of Maryland School of Medicine in 1957. After graduating in 1961 and completing his internship at Maryland, he began a residency in surgery, and then later switched to radiology.

In 1967, Dr. Diaconis began a radiology practice at Presbyterian Hospital in Dallas and also joined the faculty of Texas Southwestern Medical School as a clinical professor.

He returned to the medical school at Maryland in 1972 when Dr. John M. Dennis, then the chairman of radiology, appointed him to the medical school faculty.

"John was a brilliant and excellent physician who was also a really outstanding radiologist," said Dr. Dennis, who retired as dean of the medical school.

After joining the medical school faculty, Dr. Diaconis stated that his first objective was to improve the quality of instruction for residents and medical students. He also initiated daily conferences and a lecture series that has remained a mainstay of the department.

Dr. Diaconis was acting chairman of the department from 1973 until 1978, when Dr. Joseph E. Whitely was appointed its head.

Nedra Poe Cook, who worked in the dean's office at the medical school, recalled Dr. Diaconis' demeanor.

"He was a gruff, stocky-appearing man who looked like he should have been a bosun's mate on a ship," Mrs. Cook said.

"When he came into my office, he was always very kind and pleasant. His gruffness and physical appearance really hid a very kind man," she said.

Dr. Eliot L. Siegel, chief radiologist for the Veterans Affairs Maryland Health Care System, was a former student of Dr. Diaconis'.

"I remember when Dr. Diaconis, an unusually colorful character, would take the third-year medical students into a room, lock the door and then give them the most amazing lecture. He held them spellbound. He wanted them to think," said Dr. Siegel, also professor of diagnostic radiology and nuclear medicine at the University of Maryland Medical Center.

"He'd ask what were the greatest advances in medicine. Of course, we mumbled answers about technology or the discovery of penicillin," he said. "Then Dr. Diaconis would give us an answer that none of us ever got: Clean water and sanitation."

When working with medical students, Dr. Siegel said, "He was known for his temperament, and when you were good, he'd let you know it. And if you were not, he'd let you know it.

"He had incredibly high standards and commitment, and he expected you to have the same."

Dr. Siegel described him as an "imposing figure" who was also the most "legendary figure in radiology at Maryland."

He also praised his ability at arriving at a diagnosis.

"No matter how esoteric a case you showed him, he'd come up with the correct diagnosis. He was legendary for this," Dr. Siegel said.

"During his era, which was the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s, no matter where you mentioned radiology, his name always came up," he said.

Late in his career, Dr. Diaconis also worked with local Veterans Administration hospitals affiliated with the University of Maryland.

He was widely published regarding his expertise in imaging.

Dr. Diaconis was also known for his "characteristic frankness and compassion" that "marked him as an individual truly committed to the field and to the training of those who would continue its practice into the future," said Dr. Reuben Mezrich, a professor who holds the John M. Dennis Chair of Diagnostic Radiology and Nuclear Medicine at the University of Maryland Medical School.

"I've traveled all over the world, and the most memorable figure would easily be Dr. Diaconis," said Dr. Siegel. "He left an incredible impact on me and so many others."

He was an avid reader and follower of current events, family members said.

A memorial service for Dr. Diaconis will be held at 2 p.m. Saturday at Ruck Towson Funeral Home, 1050 York Road.

Surviving are a son, Nicholas J. Diaconis of Acton, Mass.; a daughter, Pamela Diaconis Smith of Kailua, Hawaii; a brother, George Diacoyanis of Baltimore; and two grandsons. His marriage to the former Linda Winegeart ended in divorce.

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