During more than 50 years at Massachusetts General Hospital treating people with infectious diseases, Dr. Morton N. Swartz helped thousands of patients get well. But the doctor known for his gentle voice and brilliant clinical reasoning was always haunted by those he could not save.
He never forgot a pregnant woman in her 20s who died in 1957 during a flu epidemic the year after he started MGH’s division of infectious diseases.
“You always want to look forward to the best outcome no matter what the problem is,” he told the Globe in 2004. “If it’s a fatal illness, it always lingers in your mind.”
Dr. Swartz, who was Mass. General’s chief of infectious diseases for 34 years and taught generations of Harvard Medical School students, died in the hospital Sept. 9 of complications of kidney failure. He was 89 and had lived in Brookline.
“He was one of the most miraculous men I have ever met,” said Dr. Stephen Calderwood, who began training under Dr. Swartz in the 1970s and succeeded him as MGH’s chief of infectious diseases.
“He had this intuitive ability to take the same information everybody else had and put it together in a way that would solve a problem that eluded others,” Calderwood said.
When a strange infection killed 34 and sickened more than 200 in 1976 during an American Legion Convention in Philadelphia, the Centers for Disease Control tapped Dr. Swartz to help a handful of experts who unraveled the mysteries of what became known as Legionnaires’ disease.
“Mort Swartz pioneered the specialty of infectious diseases. He educated countless physicians who each respected and greatly admired him,” said his former colleague Dr. Richard T. D’Aquila, director of the HIV Translational Research Center at Northwestern University’s Feinberg School of Medicine.
D’Aquila was awed by Dr. Swartz’s combination of brains and bedside manner when he met him while working at MGH.
“He was unsurpassed as a wise and caring clinician, outstanding mentor, and brilliant intellect,” D’Aquila said. “The world was enormously blessed and bettered by his life and work.”
Dr. Swartz possessed an almost encyclopedic recall of medicine as well as history, the arts, and Boston sports, friends said.
His colleagues once tried to stump him during presentations of case studies. They slipped in an X-ray of a sick New England Aquarium seal. They introduced the case as a 2-year-old with breathing problems.
Dr. Swartz immediately identified the patient as a pinniped, or seal, and announced that the animal had pneumonia probably caused by a bacteria known as mycoplasma.
“We all sat back down in the room crestfallen because we were unable to shake his confidence in any way and get one over on him,” Calderwood recalled fondly.
Dr. Brit Nicholson, MGH’s chief medical officer, remembered Dr. Swartz’s reaction in 1980 when he was faced with a college student suffering from Eastern equine encephalitis, a rare mosquito-borne virus.
Dr. Swartz knew she was dying, but ordered her admitted to intensive care so her family would know the hospital was doing everything possible to treat her symptoms and make her comfortable.
“Some could argue it was not the highest and best use of our resources,” Nicholson said. “He recognized there was a family that needed to be taken care of, too. He just had this wonderful warmth, this human quality.”
A Harvard Medical School professor since 1973, Dr. Swartz’s style was Socratic and filled with dry humor. Nicholson recalled that Dr. Swartz asked a room full of interns on their first day: “Do any of you happen to know the smallest recorded unit of time?”
Dr. Swartz listened before saying that all their answers were wrong and explaining: “It’s that period of time in Boston when the light turns green and everyone behind you blows their horn.”
In the 2004 interview, Dr. Swartz told the Globe he was inspired to become a doctor by the care he received as a sickly child growing up in Dorchester. His father was Dr. Jacob H. Swartz, a dermatologist, and his mother was the former Janet Heller.
During World War II, Dr. Swartz served in the Navy as a medical corpsman. He graduated from Harvard Medical School in 1947 and began his residency at MGH.
He served as chief resident at MGH before going to Johns Hopkins University for training in biochemistry.
He was married to the former Cesia Rosenberg, who died in 2010 at 83. They met at Johns Hopkins, where Cesia, a native of Poland and a Holocaust survivor, was a medical student and had worked as a lab technician, according to their family.
Their son and daughter recalled family dinners marked by nightly delivery of “Dr. Swartz’s Quiz,” their father’s adaptation of a popular newspaper column. He usually tested them on geography and capital cities around the world.
“He spent a lot of time at the hospital but the time he spent with us was quality time,” said his daughter, Caroline Armstrong, who lives in New Jersey. “He was funny and he was fun. He was a character and he taught us a lot at home.”
His son, Mark of Needham, remembered childhood trips with his father to MGH, where he marveled at Dr. Swartz’s constant hand-washing and enjoyed visits to his lab. “He would mix these chemicals for me and he would make them magically turn color. I loved it when he did that,” Mark said.
In addition to his son and his daughter, Dr. Swartz leaves a granddaughter.
A memorial service was held at Temple Israel in Boston. Burial was in Lindwood Memorial Park in Randolph. MGH plans to hold a memorial at the hospital early next year.
Dr. Swartz was president of the Infectious Diseases Society of America and was an associate editor of The New England Journal of Medicine from 1981 to 2002. He was a master of the American College of Physicians, from which he received the Distinguished Teacher Award.
When MGH celebrated its bicentennial in 2011, Dr. Swartz was awarded a Trustees’ Medal and was asked to describe some of his fondest memories of MGH. With characteristic humility, Dr. Swartz chose to talk about the work of a licensed practical nurse and an orderly.
“He talked about what a difference those individuals made in the day to day life of the patients here,” Nicholson recalled.
In 2004, when about 300 people gathered to pay tribute to Dr. Swartz, he was more interested in speaking of others.
“What I’m most proud of is that I hope to enhance the education of physicians and patients,” he said, and added, “I take pride in the success of all the people I taught. What they’ve accomplished far exceeds what I’ve done.”