Medical school dean was pilot, chaser of birds

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BIRMINGHAM, Ala. (AP) — Like a real-life Indiana Jones, Dr. Jim Pittman had a flair for adventure, despite his bow-tie wearing academic appearance as dean of the UAB School of Medicine.

Pittman, dean of the UAB School of Medicine from 1973-92, died on Jan. 12. He was 86.

Anyone who attended the Bessemer Air Show in the early 1980s had a chance to ride with Pittman in his 1935 Stearman biplane. Pittman would offer rides all day long. "He'd give anybody a ride anytime - it was just an excuse to go flying," said his son, Clinton Pittman, who used to strap in the passengers at the air show. "He was a very good pilot; he could do loops, rolls, spins. He had a little daredevil in him. It's a little bit like you get on the back of somebody's motorcycle. I almost fell out -- I forgot to buckle my own seat belt. He did a roll. When we landed, he said, 'Let's not tell your mom.'"

Before he was a doctor, Pittman became an airplane pilot as a teenager in the early 1940s. His father ran a lumber store in Orlando, and the owner of a small airport, who owed money for supplies, offered payment in the form of flying lessons.

Many of those who rode with Pittman only wanted to do it once -- like Dr. Claude Bennett and his wife, Nancy. They went out to the St. Clair County Airport in Pell City one day in the mid-1980s. Bennett, who was then chairman of the Department of Medicine at UAB, let his wife go up first. She wore a dress, hat and goggles. But it was a brief flight.

"Something wasn't working right," Bennett said. "It was sputtering. Jim came back and landed the thing. One of the spark plug wires was left out and was dangling."

Pittman reattached the wire, started up the engine, and said it was running fine. Nancy declined to ride again. Bennett took his turn riding in the front, with Pittman behind him in the plane that was used to train World War II pilots.

"The double-wings are all wooden," Bennett said. "It's covered with canvas. When you look at, it looks okay. When you think about flying in it, you weren't sure."

Pittman took him up into the sky. Bennett was cold in the open cockpit. "He reached over and tapped me on my shoulder," Bennett said. "He mouthed the words, 'Watch the propeller' - it stopped. He turned off the engine. We began to fall. I was absolutely terrified. It got warmer and warmer. Almost at the bottom, he turned it back on. We went back up. I had the ultimate test of loyalty."

Bennett, who later became UAB president, said neither he nor his wife flew with Pittman again. But Bennett did go bird watching with Pittman on occasion.

"There's a group called the American Society for Clinical Investigation -- the young turks -- and the Association of American Physicians -- the old turks -- and you have to be elected to be members of those groups," Bennett said. "They met every year in April on the New Jersey shore. You could walk out from there along the shoreline and see all kinds of birds. People would flock to him because he knew about the birds. All the shore birds were migrating in, and he knew all the details."

Groups of 10 to 15 doctors would meet Pittman at 5:30 a.m. and follow him out into the swamps.

"These were medical research meetings," Bennett said. "They were fascinated by him. It was swampy and marshy. You had to walk through that to get to a place on solid ground. Jim would tell you which birds to look for. He was the clear leader."

Pittman as a boy went duck hunting frequently with his brother in the swamplands of pre-Disney World central Florida. That's where Pittman developed a fondness for studying all kinds of birds. His first published scientific paper was a description of flying along with a common loon, and clocking it at speeds of more than 80 mph.

Pittman earned his medical degree in 1952 from Harvard University, where he met his wife, Dr. Constance Ming-Chung Shen Pittman. She was born in China, came to America to study medicine, and was unable to return home after the Chinese Communist revolutionary leader Mao Zedong took power in 1949. Pittman and Connie, as she was known, were married 55 years, until her death in 2010.

Pittman was a great admirer of missionary doctor Albert Schweitzer, who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1952. Pittman went to visit Schweitzer in his African jungle hospital in Lambarene, Gabon, in 1957.

"He was really courageous, not afraid to take risks," Bennett said. "He was at UAB at a time you needed to take risks. He was willing to do the unthinkable. It worked."

Bennett took a trip to the Amazon River with Pittman in the 1990s to go bird watching. "He made it into an adventure," Bennett said. "He liked to think of it that way."

He also hunted ducks in South America. "The last hunting trip we went on was to Argentina," Clinton said, noting that some of the birds they saw there were so unusual that even his dad had to look them up.

Pittman's life-long fascination with nature even prompted him to pick up road kill on occasion and study it, his son said. He tried his hand at taxidermy. "I think we still have an owl he stuffed himself, a great horned owl," Clinton said. "I think he thought it was miraculous the way everything worked."

When he wasn't flying airplanes or working at the university, Pittman spent a lot of time at the old Smith & Hardwick Bookstore in Birmingham, buying old books.

"He was a big reader," Bennett said. "He liked to give books away. When he'd go see a faculty member, he go take them a book."

He also wrote a book, about his mentor, Dr. Tinsley Harrison, a pioneer of internal medicine at UAB. That book should be published this year, Clinton Pittman said.

"Jim never spoke to a group that he didn't talk about Tinsley Harrison; he was totally enamored by him, what a great teacher he was," Bennett said.

Harrison wrote the standard textbook on internal medicine, and Pittman came to UAB to learn from the best, Bennett said.

"Jim was upbeat and vivacious," Bennett said. "Tinsley was scholarly, meditative, a wordsmith who could make you cry describing a patient."

After retiring in 1992, Pittman spent almost every weekend at the airport in Pell city. He and his wife made several trips to China, where they encouraged local salt makers to add iodine to the salt, to prevent brain damage in children. "He certainly had an interesting life," Bennett said.

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