Dr. James Allen Pittman, Jr., former dean of the UAB School of Medicine, passed away on January 12, 2014, at the age of 86. Born April 12, 1927 to James A. Pittman, Sr. and Jean Garretson Pittman, Dr. Pittman was raised in Orlando, Florida, where he and his brother, Joe, hunted ducks and learned to fly planes, among other youthful pursuits.
Dr. Pittman was an avid birder, and his first published paper was a description of his pursuit of a common loon in a small plane, during which he clocked the loon at a speed exceeding 80 mph. Dr. Pittman’s love of birds was the impetus for his interest in flying, and he became an accomplished aerobatic pilot, flying his 1935 Stearman biplane out of the St. Clair County Airport near Pell City, Alabama. In recent years, Dr. Pittman had become increasingly concerned about the declining bird population both regionally and worldwide.
Dr. Pittman was graduated cum laude and Phi Beta Kappa from Davidson College in 1948, and earned his medical degree magna cum laude from Harvard Medical School in 1952. He trained at Massachusetts General Hospital and the National Institutes of Health, and served as an instructor at George Washington University School of Medicine before moving to Birmingham in 1956 for a residency in medicine.
In 1957, Dr. Pittman made a pilgrimage to Lambarn in Gabon, then part of French Equatorial Africa, to visit medical missionary and Nobel Peace laureate Dr. Albert Schweitzer. This visit was particularly influential in Dr. Pittman’s later life and career. Upon returning to UAB, he served as Chief Resident under Dr. Tinsley R. Harrison, a legend in internal medicine. Dr. Pittman served in a number of teaching and administrative positions at UAB, notably as Co-Chairman of the Department of Medicine from 1969-71.
Dr. Pittman left UAB in 1971 to serve as the Assistant Chief Medical Director for the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs in Washington, DC. In 1973, UAB lured Dr. Pittman back to Birmingham by appointing him Dean of the Medical School. He was known as a brilliant recruiter, and attracted nationally and internationally known physicians and scientists to work at UAB. He had an abiding affection for an interest in the school’s medical students, always challenging and encouraging them to excel. Dr. Pittman retired from the Deanship in 1992, leaving behind a much greater institution than the one he had come to 35 years before. Following his retirement, Dr. Pittman wrote a biography about Dr. Harrison, which is expected to be published this coming year. He also spent as much time as possible flying his Stearman and passing on his love of birds and nature to his grandsons.
Dr. Pittman’s primary research interest was thyroid physiology and disease. He received numerous professional awards, including the Abraham Flexner Award from the Association of American Medical Colleges; the Brotherhood Award from the National Conference of Christians and Jews; the Founders Medal from the Southern Society of Clinical Investigation; and honorary doctorates from Davidson College and UAB. He was inducted into the Alabama Academy of Honor in 1982.
Dr. Pittman served as president of the American Federation for Clinical Research, chair of the Liaison Committee on Graduate Medical Education (the accrediting body for medical schools), president of the Harvard Medical Alumni Association, and on numerous scientific committees and boards at the Veterans Administration, the National Institutes of Health and the National Board of Medical Examiners. He was a member of the Downtown Rotary Club of Birmingham and served on the Vestry of the Cathedral Church of the Advent.
Dr. Pittman was preceded in death by his wife of 55 years, Dr. Constance Ming-Chung Shen Pittman. He is survived by, inter alia, his two sons, James Clinton Pittman and John Merrill Pittman, and two grandsons, Adam Wilson Pittman and Samuel Shen Pittman; by his brother and sister-in-law, Dr. & Mrs. Joseph Garretson Pittman of Rockford, Illinois, and their children and grandson; and by his brother and sister-in-law, Mr. & Mrs. Ming-Hung Shen of Houston, Texas, and their children and grandchildren.
A memorial service is planned for Thursday, February 6th at the Cathedral Church of the Advent. Visitation will be at 1:00 and the service will commence at 2:00. Questions about the service may be addressed to the Cathedral or to Charter Funeral Home, 2521 U.S. 31, Calera, AL 35040, (205) 823-5884.
The family suggests that in lieu of flowers, gifts be made for the furtherance of one or both of Dr. Pittman’s lifelong interests: Medicine & Birds • Dr. James A. Pittman, Jr. Memorial Fund at the School of Medicine at UAB, c/o Virginia Gilbert Loftin, 1720 Second Avenue South, FOT 1230, Birmingham, AL 35294-3412; (205) 975-5659; or via UAB Online Giving • Birmingham Audubon Society, c/o McWane Science Center, 200 19th Street North, Birmingham, AL 35203-3117