One Saturday in December 1956, Dr. Peter Safar made history at Baltimore City Hospital (now Johns Hopkins Bayview Medical Center).
Human volunteers were given curare, a potent poison that causes asphyxiation, to paralyze their breathing muscles. They were sedated, hooked up to monitors, and filmed as Safar directed an experiment in which each patient was given mouth-to-mouth resuscitation — a practice that was not well-known or promoted at the time. Safar published the results of this experiment in The Journal of American Medical Association in 1958 and, as he recalled in a March 2002 Pittsburgh Post-Gazette article, "convinced the world in one year to change artificial breathing methods."
For that alone, Safar would be worth mention in the annals of medicine, but he was also responsible for a boggling list of other innovations and accomplishments. Safar is credited with developing the cardiopulmonary resuscitation method used today (developed in large part while he worked in Baltimore); he is known in the medical world as the "Father of CPR." The unassuming physician, who in his memoirs apologized for his relative fame to those who helped him develop CPR, also developed the first intensive-care unit in the United States (at Baltimore City Hospital in 1958), designed the "Resusci-Anne" doll still used to train people in CPR techniques today, established the groundwork for the advent of modern emergency medicine, and helped design the modern ambulance (before Safar and his collaborators drew up their ambulance design, people were carted off to the hospital in whatever vehicle was available). He was also nominated for the Nobel Prize a stunning three times for his contributions to the medical world.
Safar credited his background for his dedication. The son of two doctors, born in Vienna, Austria, in 1924, Safar came of age at the brink of World War II. He played up a skin condition to stay out of the German army and, despite his mother's Jewish ancestry, avoided the concentration camps as well, beginning medical school in 1943. "My privileged survival of World War II motivated me into a life of workaholism," he said in a 1999 interview. After coming to the United States in 1949, Safar studied at Yale University and the University of Pennsylvania before embarking on his groundbreaking work in Baltimore and, in 1961, Pittsburgh, where he joined the faculty at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine; he remained associated with the institution until the end of his life.
In his later years, Safar's research focused on the brain — he had found a way to resuscitate the body, so the next logical step for him was to learn how to revive the brain as well. This work was inspired when his 11-year-old daughter, Elizabeth, lapsed into a coma after a severe asthma attack in 1966, and though her lungs and body could be brought back, her brain could not. He started work on cardiopulmonary-cerebral resuscitation, or CPCR, in which cooling techniques were used to buy time for medical intervention in severely injured patients.
Far from the stereotype of the arrogant, God-playing physician, Safar was uniformly remembered by colleagues as a charming, modest man who habitually served red wine at meetings in the belief that it fueled creativity. In 2002, Safar was diagnosed with a tumor in his pelvic region, and despite discomfort, he continued his work till he died Aug. 3 at age 79.