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March 6, 2003

Honors Convocation 2003

Peter J Safar, Distinguished Service Professor of Resuscitation Medicine at Pitt and a pioneer in critical care medicine, was the featured speaker at the University’s 27th annual honors convocation Feb. 28. He spoke on “Thoughts About Académe and Humanism.”

Safar received an honorary doctor of science degree at the convocation ceremony, held to mark the 216th anniversary of Pitt’s founding.

Safar, who earned his M.D. at the University of Vienna in 1948, formed the first medical-surgical, physician-staffed intensive care unit in the United States in 1958 at Baltimore City Hospital, where he also conducted the first basic science research on two of the three basic life support steps of what would become known as cardiopulmonary resuscitation, or CPR.

He came to Pitt in 1961 to initiate and chair the Department of Anesthesiology, which a year later added critical care medicine to its title. In 1962, Safar established the world’s first multidisciplinary critical care medicine physician fellowship training program. Also during the early 1960s, he devised a nine-step process for reviving people who suffer cardiac arrest called cardiopulmonary-cerebral resuscitation.

In 1979, he formed Pitt’s International Resuscitation Research Center, now named in his honor.

An avowed humanist and staunch supporter of academic freedom, Peter J. Safar thanked the University for letting him express “some of my biases about academe and humanism.”

Reflecting on his 80 years, the last 42 of them spent at Pitt, Safar spoke with an accent that maintains traces of his native Austria.

The meaning of life in today’s free world, Safar said, “is an individualized mix of contributions and enjoyment. Many have found such meaning in universities where humanism can flourish.”

While grounded in an appreciation of antiquity, Safar said, “Humanism is more than Greek and Latin. It should mean all that focuses on the goodness in homo sapiens, ranging from the sanctity of human life, to an appreciation of the humanities,” including history, languages, literature, fine arts, music, philosophy, the social sciences and the physical sciences.

He reflected further on the evolution of the modern university and its crucial role in continued human development.

“Although some liberal arts were taught in Western Europe since the Middle Ages, it was the Renaissance that changed the emphasis from religion (thinking about God, sins, suffering and death) to exploring the joys of human life.”

Academic freedom, he said, now sits astride the three-legged stool supporting the modern academy: teaching, research and public service.

Other academic values should be nurtured, including “historic perspectives; making philosophy, ethics and history part of almost every subject’s studies; interdisciplinary brotherhood, and teachers and students learning from each other and thereby becoming links in the chains of human evolution,” Safar said.

Students should not be spoon-fed opinions, but encouraged to think critically, he added.

“Teachers should have freedom in what to teach, whom and how, what to investigate and what to publish. This freedom is so important because often directions, documentations and discoveries may not agree with currently accepted ideas and values.”

He cited as examples discoveries in his own field of resuscitation medicine. Mouth-to-mouth resuscitation, first practiced in the 1700s, was abandoned by science only to resurface in the 1950s, and external heart massage, practiced by some surgeons in the late 1800s, was forgotten until 1958, Safar said.

“Saving brain cells with hypothermia was suggested in the 1950s, then dropped because of side effects, and revived in the 1980s through serendipitous novel re-discoveries. Many discoveries have been re-discoveries,” he pointed out.

Humanistic principles can be applied to many modern-day problems, Safar maintained, such as the American health care system. “Academic humanism could help the U.S. resuscitate itself from the current ‘mismanaged care for managed profiteering by non-professional middlemen.’ Its expense is double that in Europe while it often deprives even middle-income citizens of health insurance.”

Universities and academic medical centers should lead in fostering a single-payer national heath care system that covers basic needs, he said.

“What is wrong about our current non-system has been eloquently summarized recently in the University Times by Mr. Romoff, Senior Vice Chancellor Levine, and Professor Lave. My knowledgeable colleagues of our school of public health agree that we could have the best and most cost-effective national health care system in the world by learning from the successes and failures of systems abroad.”

Universities have a responsibility to look beyond their gates, he said.

“To prevent some of the unexpected acute dying processes, which make up about one-fourth of all human deaths, we must understand and help the world: 50 percent of humans on Earth suffer from unsafe water or malnutrition; up to 90 percent might be considered impoverished; 70 percent are unable to read, and only 1 percent have a college education. Millions still die from preventable infectious diseases.”

To address the world’s problems, Safar advocated what he termed peace medicine.

“Peace medicine includes peace-making soldiers and work for non-governmental organizations,” Safar said, such as Physicians for Social Responsibility, International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War, and the World Association for Disaster and Emergency Medicine, which he helped found.

Members of these groups are saddened, he said, “that after long, hard work and the end of the cold war, nuclear warheads are still in launch positions, and terrorists still can obtain weapons of mass destruction.” This reflects, he noted, “the sad fact that throughout history, creativity and brutality have existed side-by-side. Many are harassed, arrested, tortured or killed by religious fanatics or other villains.

“Erring is human, but so is learning from mistakes.”

Safar concluded by saying that no organization is perfect. “Success requires hard work, tenacity and luck. In our striving for excellence, we have reason to look now at the glass of human evolution to be half full, compared to a century ago when, in hindsight, the glass was half empty.

“Few creations of homo sapiens have the opportunity to promote the goodness of mankind, including work ethic and integrity, as much as universities and their medical centers. Loyalties between individuals and institutions are important. Those of you who are leaving Pitt,” he said, referring to graduating students, “remember and pass on the values Pittsburgh’s academic environment has given you.”

—Peter Hart

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